Tag Archive | "china"

Korea Faces Decision on China Because of the Quad

By Terrence Matsuo

Under the Trump administration, the U.S. has breathed new life into the concept of the Quad, which includes Australia, Japan, and India. There has been media speculation that the grouping will expand to other states, such as South Korea, because of its shared interests with Quad members. Experts say that while South Korea is unlikely to join the Quad, there are opportunities for it to partner with the bloc.

Just as the Trump administration’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy has roots in earlier concepts, the Quad is another initiative with older roots. During an online webinar hosted by the Sejong Institute and the Heritage Foundation, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Korea and Japan Marc Knapper said that the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia first came together to cooperate in humanitarian relief actions after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. “This grouping’s kind of waxed and waned over the years, but I think it’s now waxing, and it’s now growing out of a recognition that we do have shared challenges,” he said.

South Korean officials have indicated their concerns about the Quad, emphasizing that they have not been invited to participate in those discussions. Speaking to the Asia Society at the end of September, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said: “We don’t think anything that ultimately shuts out, and is exclusive of the interests of others is a good idea.” Director-General Ko Yun-ju of the North American Affairs bureau in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs echoed the foreign minister’s remarks, saying that Korea is focused on transparency, openness, and inclusiveness. “We are following those principles when we take consideration of the new initiative from the other countries of the regional cooperation,” he said, during the Sejong/Heritage event.

Officially, members of the Quad have identified a wide range of issues where they believe they can deepen cooperation. According to remarks before their meeting in Tokyo earlier in October, the foreign ministers identified topics like the coronavirus pandemic, infrastructure and economic development, and regional stability. Col. David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said that this wider interest differentiates the Quad from NATO, an organization it has been compared to. “To have the Quad built on a foundation that is more than just military cooperation is what will make the Quad strong and longer lasting, to the mutual benefit of all the participants,” he said.

Pointing to similarities between the American Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy and the Korean New Southern Policy, Col. Maxwell said that maintaining freedom of access in the region, and cybersecurity are possible areas where Korea could partner with the Quad. “Since South Korea is the only nation to go from a major aid recipient to a major donor nation, I think that it would participate in other kinds of humanitarian and economic development in the region as part of a Quad Plus,” he added.

But not all experts are so optimistic about South Korea participating in activities led by the Quad. “A lot of these other issues – environmental, economic, dealing with the pandemic – need to be dealt with by far more than just the four countries of the Quad,” observed Dr. Gregg A. Brazinsky, the director of the Asia Studies Program at George Washington University.

The reason Korea has kept the Quad at arms length is because of its implicit focus on addressing China. Although it is unusual for diplomatic initiatives to specifically target a particular state, Dr. Brazinsky says, “I think you have to read the writing on the wall a little bit with something like this.” He pointed to recent clashes on the border between India and China, and longstanding Japanese concerns over Chinese incursions into its territorial waters. “When I look at the Quad, it seems that there are other areas where they can cooperate, but it also seems that the most prominent, common objective that the countries who are members have is containing China,” said Dr. Brazinsky.

Some Korean commentators warn Seoul against participating in the Quad because of this focus on China and a brewing cold war between Beijing and Washington. Professor Moon Chung-in, an advisor to the Blue House has said Korea’s participation in the Quad could force an “existential dilemma” that would put Korea “on the front line of a new Cold War era.”

“During the 45 years of the Cold War, Koreans suffered from the division of the peninsula and the ensuing war, an entrenched military standoff, and the limitations of a divided country,” writes Professor Moon in a column for the Hankyoreh. “Thus, they’re hardly about to welcome yet another cold war.”

But experts say Korea may not be able to maintain its midway point between the U.S. and China. “When you think about Korean history, it’s a disaster,” said Dr. Michael Green, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, during an online webinar. He pointed out that when Korea tried to maintain strategic ambiguity between Qing China and Imperial Japan, Tokyo invaded. When U.S.-Korea relations were ambiguous after World War II, North Korea invaded. “History shows that when Korea tries to play this strategic ambiguity game between the big powers, it doesn’t end well,” Dr. Green said.

Calls for Korea to reconsider its strategic position between Beijing and Washington are not coming only from the U.S. side. A CSIS survey of Korean thought leaders found that 80% of respondents believed South Korea should prioritize security cooperation with the U.S. over relations with China. “Seoul now needs to recognize that continuing to keep an ambiguous stance between the US and China might make it the biggest victim of the intensifying rivalry between the two superpowers,” said a recent editorial in The Korean Herald, an English-language newspaper in Korea. “Its economic interests with China cannot be allowed to undermine its vital security alliance with the US.”

Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia Abraham Denmark says that the Quad is just part of the larger challenge facing Korea. “If the United States is going to be increasingly focused on China in our geopolitics, then Korea’s going to need to figure out how it’s going to orient towards that,” he said. “How does the U.S.-Korea alliance handle the China question, be it in the Quad, outside the Quad, bilaterally, unilaterally, whatever it may be.”

Because of Korean ambivalence towards the Quad, experts say diplomats in both Washington and Seoul will need subtle diplomacy to manage stress in the bilateral relationship. “I think it’s important that there be some avenue for consulting with South Korea about what is going on in the Quad,” said Dr. Brazinsky. “But at the same time, I think it’s important that the United States doesn’t push South Korea too hard to be part of [the Quad].”

“There’s got to be open communication, built on a foundation of trust between the US and South Korea,” said Col. Maxwell. “Both sides have to be upfront about the challenges that they face, a clear articulation of their interests, and they’ve got to make decisions based on trust and transparency.”

Terrence Matsuo is a writer and analyst of American foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific region and a Contributing Author for The Peninsula. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Photo from the U.S. Department of State’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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THAAD Remains a Persistent Issue in ROK-China Relations

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • Transportation of unspecified military hardware to the U.S. anti-ballistic missile base in South Korea raised questions on whether additional missiles have been deployed or upgraded.
  • With the U.S. government expanding the G7 to address ongoing tensions with China, South Korea received a formal invitation to participate in the group.
  • The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian voiced China’s displeasure on being left out of multilateral institutions and developments at the anti-ballistic missile installation in South Korea.

Implications: Despite the 2017 agreement between Seoul and Beijing that addressed the latter’s concern around the presence of U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles in South Korea, the relitigation of the controversy suggests that the missile defense system remains a wedge issue. Beijing’s response to developments at the THAAD base may have been colored by the White House hinting its intentions to mobilize its allies in the ongoing standoff with China. As U.S.-China tensions worsen, Beijing’s criticism of THAAD may also intensify in the coming weeks and months.

Context: THAAD has been a major source of tension between China and South Korea because of its ability to thwart Chinese missile capabilities. When it was first deployed to Korea in 2017, China responded with unofficial sanctions and boycotts that cost the South Korean economy about USD 6.8 billion. Although an agreement was eventually reached and the sanctions and boycott were lifted, the issue remains a provocative topic in ROK-China relations.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Gordon Henning, Soojin Hwang, and Ingyeong Park.

Picture from Lockheed Martin‘s flickr account

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What Is Behind North Korea’s Latest Broadside Against Balloons?

By Robert R. King

In a tough statement, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, issued a particularly vicious attack on North Korean defectors, particularly those who send leaflets across the border from the South. She referred to the refugees in the South as “human scum, hardly worth their value as human beings” and “human scum, little short of wild animals who betrayed their own homeland, are engrossed in such unbecoming acts to imitate men. They are sure to be called mongrel dogs as they bark in where they should not.” [The quoted text is from the official English translation of the statement; the Republic of Korea is always referred to as “south Korea” without a capital “S”.]

The statement also includes a threat: “Now that the mongrel dogs are doing others harm, it is time to bring their owners to account. I would like to ask the south Korean authorities if they are ready to take care of the consequences of evil conduct done by the ruggish-like mongrel dogs who took no scrupple to slander us while faulting the ‘nuclear issue’ in the meanest way at the most untimely time.”

The repetition of vicious phrases such as “human scum” and “mongrel dogs” seems to go beyond the usual vituperation and venom that is reserved by the North for defectors who have illegally fled the paradise that is North Korea in order to live in the South.

Why has one of the most senior North Korean officials, the sister of the Supreme Leader, issued such a blistering denunciation of refugees from the North now in the South?

Are Leaflets Really Having an Impact in North Korea?

The statement begins with reference to sending “hundreds of thousands of anti-DPRK leaflets into the areas of our side from the frontline area.” Sending leaflets across the DMZ via balloons or other means of physically delivering the papers has been done for decades. In recent years this has been a publicized effort of some human rights and defector organizations in the South for publicity and fund-raising. The effort is visible and photo-worthy. It irritates officials in the North, and the media blasts from the North are used by human rights groups in the South as evidence of their effectiveness. (See, for example, the North Korean threats against the South in 2016 when tens of thousands of leaflets were sent across the border by balloon.)

Leaflets sent by balloon, however, have limited impact. They usually land not far from the DMZ border and seldom if ever reach Pyongyang, and soldiers are ordered to pick up and destroy such propaganda materials. Far more significant information is reaching North Korea via radio—government-sponsored and religious broadcasts from South Korea, U.S. radio from Voice of America and Radio Free Asia in Korean, and Korean-language broadcasts from Chinese border areas intended for the Korean population in Northeast China, but with a significant listenership in North Korea. In Cold War Europe in the 1950s, the United States conducted major sophisticated balloon drops of leaflets directed toward Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and other countries in Central Europe, but such efforts were abandoned in 1956 in large part because they were less effective than radio in reaching these areas.

Uncertainty in the North and Defector Influence in the South

Another factor that may have motivated Kim Yo-jong to release her broadside against North Korean defectors in South Korea is because there is growing uncertainty in the North. Kim Jong-un was missing from the public eye for three weeks before he made a public appearance for the grand opening of a fertilizer factory, then he was out of sight again for a notable period of time. The Supreme Leader smokes too much, is overweight, and he had health problems—not a healthy prognosis for someone in his 30s. The recent promotion of the Supreme Leader’s sister Kim Yo-jong to alternate membership in the Politburo and her recent prominence in making important public statements, such as this recent blast against defector leaflets, may be a further indication of uncertainty about the future.

Another factor that may be raising concerns in the North is what appears to be the growing influence of defectors in South Korea. In elections six weeks ago, two prominent defectors were elected to the National Assembly. Although both are members of the minority party in the Assembly, it shows the growing credibility, acceptability, and influence of defectors in the South. Defectors traditionally have taken the toughest position against the North in South Korea’s political discourse. In the past defectors have been on the margins of South Korean society, but now two prominent defectors sit in the National Assembly.

Pressing South Korea for Progress on Rapprochement

Another explanation for the “nastygram” from Kim Yo-jong is that Pyongyang is getting impatient with the slow progress by President Moon Jae-in for improving relations between the North and South. Moon just marked the third full year of his five-year term in office, and under the South Korean constitution, a president can serve only a single term. Time is running out to redefine the relationship with the North under Moon Jae-in. Furthermore, Moon’s Democratic Party just won some 60 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. If he wants to make progress with the North, he now has the votes in the Assembly to get it done. Mme. Kim’s blast may be intended to encourage President Moon to move more quickly.

The threats in the tough message from Pyongyang target initiatives that President Moon supports in the search for better relations with the North. Kim Yo-Jong referenced the upcoming 20th anniversary of the June 15, 2000 summit between leaders of the North and South, and their declaration marking the beginning of Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine” Policy which led to improved relations, divided family visits, and economic cooperation.

Kim Yo-jong’s warning to the South Korean president followed another blast of vicious invective: “The south Korean authorities must be aware of the articles of the Panmunjom Declaration and the agreement in the military field in which both sides agreed to ban all hostile acts including leaflet-scattering in areas along the Military Demarcation Line. . . . It is hard to understand how such sordid and wicked act of hostility is tolerated in the south at a time as now.”

Mme. Kim then spelled out the threats: “south Korean authorities will be forced to pay a dear price if they let this situation go on while making sort of excuses.” If Seoul does not take steps Pyongyang is demanding “they had better get themselves ready for possibility of the complete withdrawal of the already desolate Kaesong Industrial Park following the stop to tour of Mt. Kumgang, or shutdown of the north-south joint liaison office whose existence only adds to trouble, or the scrapping of the north-south agreement in military field which is hardly of any value.”

Considering the modest impact of the leaflet balloons and the vicious voice in which they are attacked, it seems quite clear that the North is simply trying to move Seoul into making important concessions now. Political uncertainty, the possible strain on the North Korean economy from United Nations sanctions, and the worldwide Covid-19 economic downturn are likely the most important factors behind the vehemence of the statement, which indicates its urgency.

Denouncing U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo and Defending China

Another interesting and probably related media missive was a statement released by the International Department of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea. The statement said that Secretary of State Pompeo “reeled off rubbish” that the U.S. would work with its partners in the West to ensure that “liberal democracy” rules in this century. It continued to note that Pompeo “said nonsense about China over the issues of Hong Kong, Taiwan, human rights and trade disputes,” and “he slandered the leadership of the Communist Party of China over socialism.” The statement then included another malicious comment about the Secretary of State: “Pompeo, who has been deeply engrossed in espionage and plot-breeding against other countries, has become too ignorant to discern where the sun rises and where it sets.”

The last phrase is probably the key to the blast at Pompeo. North Korea clearly has cast its lot with China and wants to make sure that Beijing will have no doubt that Pyongyang sees its future with its socialist neighbor China as relations deteriorate between the U.S. and China.

Increasingly dependent on China as its economy worsens, thanks to UN sanctions and now the Covid-19 economic downturn, North Korea appears to be increasingly concerned about its future. The blast at South Korea and the tightening embrace of China appear to show a North Korea increasingly fearful about the future in a very difficult time.

South Korea’s Immediate Response Risks Emboldening the North

In less than 24 hours after Mme. Kim Yo-jong issued her demeaning and intemperate screed against the flier balloons, the South Korean government responded that it would take immediate action to prohibit the sending of fliers via balloon because they caused “tension” with the North. Mayors of some of the towns along the border reportedly called for strong government action to halt the balloon launch. The spokesperson of the Ministry of Unification said “most leaflets have been found in our territory, causing environmental pollution and increasing burden on local people to get rid of them.”

Defectors and human rights activists were equally adamant that they would not stop their launch activities. One rights group said it had no plans to stop sending fliers across the border, and in fact had ordered another one million leaflets. Advocates were quick to denounce the restrictions as a violation of the right of freedom of speech, and others denounced buckling under Pyongyang’s demands.

The real risk of for the Moon Jae-in government is that by responding so quickly and so publicly to the demeaning dressing down from Mme. Kim Yo-jong gives the administration the appearance of being overly eager to accede to Pyongyang’s demands. It looks particularly obsequious to respond so quickly and so totally to such an arrogant ultimatum from the North.

Such a response only weakens Seoul’s ability to negotiate with the North.  The quick and total capitulation by the South will only encourage Pyongyang to take a tougher position in any negotiations that may come up in the future.  There was not even a hint that the South might drive a bargain with the North to get something in return for ending the sending of fliers.

I am personally skeptical of the value of balloons. Getting information into the North is better done with radio broadcasts and thumb drives than with fliers. How Seoul is responding, however, will have a major impact on future negotiations with the North.  Unfortunately, the pattern does not bode well. The South Korean government’s immediate capitulation on balloons will only encourage the North to make unreasonable demands. The real danger is that Moon Jae-in administration will be so eager to show success in improving relations with the North in the final two years of its tenure in office that there will be an incentive to cave to demands from the North.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America.  He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.  

Picture sources from Wikimedia commons

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Korean Sentiments Toward China Continue to Worsen

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • A recent survey by the Carnegie Endowment for Peace found that only 26% of South Korean respondents believe that China would be a supportive partner of unification on the Korean Peninsula.
  • Recently, the arrest of a Chinese national who entered South Korea without documentation has prompted an investigation into potential espionage activity.
  • Negative perceptions towards China have been evident since tensions over the installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery in Korea.

Implications: Negative views towards China may intensify as the Korean public places greater attention on inter-Korean issues. The recent Carnegie survey revealed that public sentiments towards China became more hostile when framed in the context of unification. While survey data does not show how COVID-19 has affected attitudes towards Beijing, the recent espionage probe into a Chinese national may further color perceptions of the bilateral relationship. As the Moon administration has greater political space to advance inter-Korean ties, the increased focus on relations with North Korea may further exacerbate negative attitudes towards China.

Context: According to a 2015 Pew Research poll, 61% of South Koreans had favorable views of China. However, a December 2019 poll showed only 34% of South Koreans have a favorable view of China, while 63% have an unfavorable view. A major catalyst for the deterioration in attitudes may stem from Chinese retaliation against Korea’s installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery. Chinese boycotts against Korea products cost companies like Lotte nearly USD 2 billion in losses.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Gordon Henning, Soojin Hwang, Hyungim Jang, and Ingyeong Park.

Picture from flickr user Haluk Beyazab

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Can South Korea Find A Middle Way Between the U.S. and China?

By Mintaro Oba

The South Korea-China relationship has its share of ups and downs.  But ultimately, the long-term trajectory of Korea-China ties will always trend upward; the strategic and economic interests bringing the two countries together are too compelling to keep them apart for too long.

As the Korea Desk officer at the State Department charged with following Korea-China relations through many of those ups and downs – from the high of then-President Park Geun-hye’s attendance at the September 2015 military parade in Beijing to the low of the Korea-China dispute over the THAAD deployment – that was the one point I always insisted on including in any briefing to senior officials on the Korea-China relationship.  It’s also the key point the United States neglects today.  Not antagonizing Beijing in order to maintain this mutually beneficial relationship is a key tenet of South Korean foreign policy, and U.S. policymakers hoping Seoul will explicitly back an aggressive U.S. approach to competing with China are headed for deep and profound disappointment.  If the United States wants South Korea to play a constructive and helpful role in its China strategy, it will have to take a more nuanced approach, one that emphasizes implicit balancing over explicit competition.

Like it or not, a closer South Korea-China relationship is a strategic fact of the region.  For South Korea, it’s the logical way to maximize its diplomatic options, trying to get the most out of having good relations with the two major powers in the region and the world.  For China, engaging South Korea is a useful way to disrupt the U.S. alliance system by securing the backing of a U.S. ally for Chinese priorities the United States might not favor (like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) as well as reducing the likelihood it will face a united front from U.S. allies in the region in the event of some conflict.  Economically, too, both countries benefit from access to each other’s markets, and China is South Korea’s largest trading partner by far.

It’s no wonder, then, that we have seen the current Moon Jae-in administration follow in the footsteps of past Korean administration in making moves to strengthen Korea-China ties, too.  Before the COVID-19 pandemic, South Korea had been expecting a state visit by Xi Jinping that it hoped would signal a return to strong Korea-China relations after the particularly difficult period caused by THAAD.  Although the pandemic temporarily stymied those efforts, Korea-China relations have been gaining momentum as both countries emerge from the situation and turn their focus back to strategic priorities and restoring economic growth, with President Moon reaffirming that Xi would visit Seoul within the year and the two countries are continuing discussions to expand the scope of their bilateral free trade agreement.

But much to South Korea’s consternation, just as its efforts to engage China return to the front burner, U.S. policy toward China has hardened dramatically. The Trump administration has cited South Korea as a potential participant in its new Economic Prosperity Network initiative designed to sideline China from global supply chains.  Tensions over China’s proposed national security law in Hong Kong also threaten to entangle South Korea.  South Korea has held a special interagency meeting to discuss how to handle U.S.-China tensions.  “If we antagonize China,” warned Moon Chung-in, special advisor to President Moon Jae-in, “China can pose a military threat to us. Plus, China can support North Korea. Then, we will really have a new Cold War on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia.”

The evidence is clear: South Korea’s longstanding interest in maintaining ties with China and its deep-seated fear of antagonizing Beijing on practically everything guarantees that explicit U.S.-Korea counterbalancing against China won’t work.  At the same time, a more competitive mindset about U.S.-China relations is likely to be a permanent fixture of the regional environment and U.S. domestic politics – and if South Korea can’t find some way to accommodate the U.S. strategic interest in countering China, it will find more and more U.S. policymakers questioning the value and fairness of an alliance in which the United States has firmly committed lives and resources to dealing with South Korea’s ultimate strategic priority, North Korea.

Luckily, there’s a middle way: an implicit balancing strategy that focuses on the substance of countering Chinese power and not the optics, creating more space for South Korea to contribute in concrete ways to the U.S. strategy without openly antagonizing China.  How would this work?

First, work with South Korea to help other states gain strategic and economic capabilities that would help them offset Chinese power.   

From helping Indonesia build up its coast guard to help it better patrol its territorial waters, to expanding trade with Vietnam to offset both countries’ economic dependence on China, South Korea’s expertise, economic power, and many advanced capabilities can quietly support other powers in maintaining their independence from China.

To advance these goals, the United States should cooperate with South Korea in a way that invites a Chinese overreaction.  China’s coercive response to THAAD deployment is just the biggest example of how China can turn something South Korea has done for its own security into a contest of sovereignty.  The United States should advance cooperation with South Korea that can serve as tripwires for China to stumble and publicly make an issue of something in a way that causes damage to its standing in South Korea.  Strengthening U.S.-Korea-India cooperation is a good example – something benign that benefits all three countries, but could easily be portrayed by China as a strategic threat.

Second, embed South Korea in rules-based agreements and institutions in key areas. 

Rules-based order is a quiet battleground between the United States and China.  China benefits from ignoring international law, like the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, in favor of using its might to enforce legally unjustifiable claims like its Nine-Dash Line in the South China Sea and create facts on the ground that support those claims.  When it comes to the South China Sea, South Korea has always wavered between China and the United States on the notion of reinforcing rules; if Seoul does comment on the South China Sea, for example, it has a tendency to focus on norms of safe passage and freedom rather than the applicable rules in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.  But in other developing areas, like cyber or environmental policy, there is a chance to commit South Korea to rules and norms that promote values the United States and South Korea claim to share, like a free, open, and multistakeholder model of governing the Internet.

Third, and finally, the United States and South Korea should place a greater emphasis on public diplomacy.

The United States has a demonstrated track record of successful public diplomacy with South Korea, from effective short-term engagement by U.S. ambassadors to South Korea – like Sung Kim, Mark Lippert, and KEI’s own Kathleen Stephens – to exchange programs that create strong people-to-people ties long term.  China has proven less deft in this arena.  With the right ambassador in Seoul and the right public initiatives, the United States can strengthen its ties with the Korean people, highlight its commitment to South Korea’s sovereignty and strength, and create an environment where any Chinese missteps and overreach could draw helpful contrasts with the United States for Koreans.

Ultimately, the United States needs to reassess how it conceives its overall strategy toward China – and what the point of strategic competition with China really is.  Is it competition for competition’s sake?  Or is it competition to ensure that the rules and outcomes that matter, in areas from human rights to trade relations, are shaped by the United States, its partners, and the values we share?  If it’s the latter, there is a great deal we can accomplish together with South Korea.  If it’s the former, we may be on our own.

Mintaro Oba is a former State Department official and expert commentator on U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as a Contributing Author for The Peninsula.

Photo from the White House photostream on flickr Creative Commons. 

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North Korea’s Trade with China Continues to Collapse from COVID-19

By Troy Stangarone

North Korea’s decision to put in place strict border controls and quarantines at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak in China continues to have a significant effect on trade as new March trade figures with China show even sharper declines than the figures for the January-February period.

According to China’s General Administration of Customs, North Korea’s exports to China fell to only $616,000 last month, down from a combined $10.7 million in January and February. This is by far the lowest monthly North Korean export figure to China since the United Nations began placing stricter sanctions on North Korean exports in 2016. The previous low was $9.4 million in February of 2018.

The drop in North Korean imports from China are nearly as drastic. In March, North Korean imports from China were only $18 million. This is down from imports of $197.4 million in the January-February period. Imports from China had previously not fallen below $89 million in February of 2019 since the stricter UN sanctions were put in place.

While China changed its reporting this year to combine January and February trade data, the March figures suggest that with the quarantine and border controls in place most of the trade early this year likely took place in January. Had China maintained monthly statistics, the February numbers would likely show a similar decline in North Korean trade with China.

With China beginning to reopen its economy these figures may rise, but as long as North Korea maintains measures to limit the potential spread of COVID-19 we should expect trade figures to remain below the normal levels that have developed under sanctions.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director and Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Prince Roy’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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North Korea and the COVID Crisis: The Sanctions Angle

By Stephan Haggard

Humanitarian disasters in closed, authoritarian regimes pose particular challenges to the international community. Government actions can exacerbate or even create crises; this was certainly true of the great famine of the early 1990s. Yet the victims of the regime’s choices are innocents, including overstretched but dedicated doctors and health care workers. If the sanctions regime is impeding an outside humanitarian response, it needs to be adjusted–and quickly. There is evidence—outlined below—that sanctions exemptions are being granted to multilateral institutions and NGOS with greater speed. But by sheer proximity, China and South Korea are best positioned to play a role, and should exploit the discretion they are being given to act.

Where do things currently stand with respect to COVID-19 in North Korea? (The best English-language aggregator is NKPro’s, which includes a thorough timeline). There can be little question that the government moved quickly to close the border and initiate quarantine protocols on those entering or returning to the country. These restrictions began on January 21 with tourism (overwhelmingly Chinese and an important source of foreign exchange that did not fall under multilateral sanction) and within a week, the border had been closed almost altogether. The one land port of entry that remained open—across the bridge linking Dandong and Sinuiju—got snarled in the border closure and quarantine protocols on both sides, although trade resumed in April.

By the fourth week of January, state media were openly addressing the issue domestically as well and Rodong Sinmun covered domestic quarantines in several provinces as early as March 1. Yet transparency remains an issue. To date, the regime has still not announced the presence of any cases in the country, even though underground sources were reporting deaths from COVID-like symptoms across a number of provinces in early March.

As elsewhere, COVID-19 has both an economic and medical dimension. As a result of the sanctions regime, North Korea is almost completely dependent on China for external sources of supply. Although sanctions evasion is rampant, the country has almost certainly faced an external shock as a result of the border closure. Close analysis of food prices through the first week of March by Benjamin Silberstein at 38North detected an uptick that could reflect both scarcity and panic buying. Prices remain elevated in more recent data (March 20).

More damaging is the fact that the multilateral sanctions regime—while formally permitting exemptions—has proven highly cumbersome to navigate. Product bans have swept up a variety of products that are crucial both to public health generally and to management of COVID-19 in particular. A major concern is the way financial sanctions have impeded the aid effort. The UN and prominent NGOs have repeatedly complained about the difficulty of funding their North Korean operations because of banks’ skittishness in transferring funds to North Korean entities. They have been forced to resort to cash transactions as a result.

The American response to the potential humanitarian crisis in North Korea has been mixed, but broadly reasonable. In contrast to the famine era, North Korea quietly sent out feelers for aid quite early. In mid-February, the State Department issued a sober statement offering support. On March 19, Secretary Pompeo reiterated that offer—and on the Hannity show on Fox News no less—and the President himself reportedly sent one of his personal missives on the issue. But American officials—including Secretary of State Pompeo—as well as outside commenters, have also insisted that sanctions pressure should not be taken off, and North Korea has predictably bristled that aid could be a Trojan horse.

What is said may be less important than what is being done, however; Keith Luse at the National Committee on North Korea has the most granular coverage. As he notes, there has been a lot of high-level communication on the issue of adjusting sanctions in the COVID era: in the UN Secretary-General’s letter to the G20; in the High Commissioner for Human Rights statement and in a joint letter by seven countries—led by China and Russia–to the UN. The latter is rightly seen as a move in the global propaganda war, as Washington, Beijing and Moscow seek to jockey for position in the COVID-19 blame game.

However, we looked closely at the 11 requests for multilateral sanctions exemption through the so-called 1718 committee since December; the information can be found here. We calculated the number of days it took for the committee to issue exemptions to applicants. For those requests made in December and January, the average time for approval was 22 days. For those made in February and March, the time fell to 7 days. Those applying can request that their appeals not be made public, and the committee may not report rejections. Sources with knowledge of the process have told me that the 1718 committee now operates with the intent of three-day turnaround on COVID-19 exemption requests.

These actions are inferior to a wider sectoral review of whether the dual-use net is being cast too widely.  Nonetheless, it is clear that exemptions are being granted more swiftly and that the U.S.—given its effective veto power—is allowing COVID-related aid to get through.

Sanctions have a role in getting North Korea back to the table. But President Trump—despite his letters to Kim Jong-un—signaled even before the COVID crisis that he did not anticipate a major initiative on the nuclear question prior to the election. Kim Jong-un has shown his pique by resuming missile tests in 2019, and even into the COVID era. Yet that should be seen as a sign of weakness not strength, including possible domestic pushback to Kim Jong-un’s policy failures with the United States. The Trump administration has been right to play down the actual risks.

With nuclear negotiations in any case stalled out, the appropriate policy for the United States is not to promise aid directly, but to continue to waive those sanctions that are needed for any relief effort. China, the humanitarian community and particularly South Korea should take the lead. South Korea has now authorized its first, small-scale private aid effort. Giving President Moon Jae-scope for maneuver on the humanitarian front is superior to opening commercial ventures, like the Kaesong Industrial Complex, that provide cash directly to the regime. It is overly hopeful to see this as an opening that will have wider effects, and as noted the North Koreans are wary. But as Secretary Pompeo himself said in his Fox interview, “it’s the right thing to do in a time of crisis.”

Stephan Haggard is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute and the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, Director of the Korea-Pacific Program and distinguished professor of political science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy University of California San Diego. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Norway UN (New York)’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Domestic Labor Market Faces Coronavirus Headwinds

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • On February 12, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki warned that the coronavirus could enhance uncertainties in the domestic labor market. Report from the Korea Development Institute echoed these concerns.
  • Statistics Korea revealed that the number of jobs occupied by people in their 40s declined for 51 consecutive months.
  • Significant share of the new jobs added in 2019 went to workers who were above the prime working age (25-54).

Implications: Economic uncertainties created by the U.S.-China trade war and the coronavirus outbreak revealed that skilled workers in South Korea’s manufacturing sector are more vulnerable to shocks in the global market. There are two drivers that place skilled manufacturing workers in this precarious position. First, internal changes in the manufacturing sector led to increased automation in domestic plants while more labor-intensive production was outsourced to emerging markets. Second, companies are more likely to terminate skilled workers in their 40s – generally the highest paid workers in the sector – when looking to reduce overhead cost during downturns. Reflecting these vulnerabilities, preliminary data showed that much of the job creation in 2019 went to workers who are outside prime working age. Further shocks could come from work stoppages by Chinese manufacturers due to the coronavirus.

Context: Through expanded fiscal spending, the South Korean government has increased the overall number of jobs, but these new opportunities have gone largely to the elderly. Data from August 2019 showed that South Korea’s low unemployment rate obscures the fact that job seekers above the age of 60 accounted for 391,000 out of 452,000 new jobs created during the survey period, while employment declined among the 40-49 age group. The number of people who have reached retirement age but are staying in the workforce also hint at the gravity of elderly poverty in the country – the average age of households in the bottom 20% of income earners is 63.4.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Gordon Henning, Soojin Hwang, Hyungim Jang, and Ingyeong Park.

Picture from LG Electronics flickr account

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Opposition Party’s Unorthodox Strategy Lost Amidst Virus Concerns

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • Despite criticism from the ruling Minjoo Party and the minority Justice Party, the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) launched a satellite party to gain more proportional seats in the upcoming legislative election.
  • The LKP has also criticized the government’s decision to deploy USD 300,000 of medical supplies to some affected cities in China.
  • Neither of these actions appear to have advanced the opposition party in the polls. For instance, only 43.9 percent of LKP supporters who were surveyed supported the launch of the satellite party.

Implications: While South Korean legislative elections are usually determined by the public’s outlook on political issues (such as the fairness of a party’s primary system), the coronavirus has shifted the focus for the upcoming contest to the government’s handling of the ongoing public health threat. This may deflect some criticism from the LKP, which has launched a satellite party to win more proportional seats in the National Assembly – a move that has proven unpopular with both the general electorate and party supporters. Simultaneously, the LKP’s critique of the Moon administration’s decision to send medical supplies to China does not appear to resonate with the average citizenry.

Context: The LKP is in a defensive position after back-to-back losses in the 2017 presidential election and the 2018 by-elections. The opposition party has ceded several key legislation to the ruling Minjoo party in the past few months, including the new budget and new rules lowering the voting age. The ruling party also faces the difficult task of overcoming a field crowded by both liberal and conservative splinter parties and securing a majority in the 300-seat chamber. The consequence of not securing a majority of seats would be greater challenges to President Moon Jae-in passing key bills that are central to his platform in the remaining 2 years of his term in the Blue House.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Gordon Henning, Soojin Hwang, Hyungim Jang, and Ingyeong Park.

Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Coronavirus Countermeasures Under Domestic Scrutiny

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • As of February 7, South Korea reported 23 confirmed cases of coronavirus infections and medical teams are checking 1,234 suspected cases. In response, the government is ramping up countermeasures, including temporarily closing schools.
  • South Korea enforced an entry ban on non-Korean travelers who have been to China’s Hubei province in the past 14 days.
  • China’s ambassador to South Korea urged countries to follow World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendations and avoid “unnecessary interference with international travel and trade.”
  • On January 30, President Moon warned against consuming fake news about coronavirus and underscored that the creation of fake news about an urgent national crisis is a serious crime.
  • On January 27, officials from the Blue House released guidance that called for the press to refer to the epidemic as “Novel Coronavirus” instead of “Wuhan virus.”

Implications: Domestic perceptions of South Korea’s relative position vis-a-vis its neighbors affect the public’s support for policies on transnational issues, like disease control. As the Moon Jae-in administration implements measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, it must simultaneously address internal criticism that efforts have been restrained to appease China. Building on existing views that Korean liberal parties are pro-Beijing, critics speculate whether the government is attempting to appease Beijing with its cautious approach to expanding the entry ban for foreigners who have recently visited China despite the public’s concerns. Efforts to tackle anti-Chinese sentiment are also under scrutiny. For instance, the government explained that they are avoiding the use of the term “Wuhan virus” based on the WHO’s recommendation. However, some in the media have characterized this measure as a double standard, pointing out that the government has never regulated the use of terms like “Japanese encephalitis” or “U.S. flu.” Similarly, many critics suspect that the government’s unusually aggressive posture on fake news about the virus is to minimize friction with Beijing.

Context: President Moon has been working to improve relations with China after ties hit a nadir over Seoul’s decision to deploy a U.S. anti-ballistic missile battery in South Korea. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s possible visit to South Korea in the first half of 2020 is viewed as an opportunity for President Moon to bolster diplomatic ties with the country’s largest trading partner. In this context, the ROK government is likely aware of China’s sensitivity towards the treatment of its nationals since the outbreak of the coronavirus. For instance, Beijing has been critical of the U.S. government’s decision to ban the entry of foreign nationals who have recently traveled to China.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Gordon Henning, Soojin Hwang, Hyungim Jang, and Ingyeong Park.

Picture from flickr user CiaoHo

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About The Peninsula

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.