Tag Archive | "Lee Myung-Bak"

Past Policies Shape Korea’s Green New Deal

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

  • The Blue House confirmed that a “Green New Deal” would be a component of a Korean New Deal that President Moon announced on May 10.
  • This confirmation followed urging from the environmental group Greenpeace for Moon to set a positive example for combating climate change as South Korea addresses the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
  • The Moon government has already pledged to implement a nation-wide emissions cap and put Korea on a path to becoming a zero-emissions country by 2050.

Implications: South Korea’s current environmental policy aims are emerging out of foundations laid by economic initiatives of previous administrations. Although Presidents Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak advanced “green” plans that were primarily aimed at boosting economic growth, their initiatives ensured that the government’s pro-environment posture would be closely associated with economic growth. Moreover, it cultivated stakeholders who would push the government to do more to reduce the country’s carbon emissions. Moon Jae-in’s ongoing efforts are further helped by the widespread recognition that increased public investment is vital to the post-COVID economic recovery.

Context: In his 2008 inauguration speech, President Lee Myung-bak highlighted his vision of employing green technology to overcome the ongoing global financial crisis. During the Park Geun-hye administration, the government continued to promote green technology as a vehicle to boost the economy. During this period, the Korea Electric Power Corporation advanced an initiative to improve the country’s energy efficiency by integrating smart technology into the electricity grid. The investment in smart electrical grid helped set the stage for additional investments in renewable energy sources including solar energy, energy storage, and electron volt chargers.

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

Picture from flickr account of Republic of Korea

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Role of Coronavirus Overstated in General Elections?

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

  • President Moon Jae-in’s approval rating fell 5% between mid-January and the final week of February, according to Gallup.
  • Conservative politicians have criticized Moon’s handling of the epidemic since the initial stages of the outbreak.
  • A poll by Hankook Research revealed that 50% of constituents identifying as centrists disapprove of the government response to COVID-19.

Implications: While President Moon Jae-in’s approval ratings have fallen in the past 6 weeks, the impact of the coronavirus on people’s confidence in the government may be overstated. President Moon’s approval rating fell from 47% in the second week of January (before the first confirmed coronavirus case in South Korea) to 42% in the final week of February as the number of coronavirus patients grew to nearly 3,000. However, Moon’s approval ratings have been fluctuating between 39% and 49% since October 2019. Although additional polling suggests that the government’s handling of the outbreak may affect the voting behavior of some cohorts in the upcoming general election, Korean presidents commonly head into legislative elections with falling approval ratings.

Context: Fluctuating approval ratings of previous administrations suggest that public health crises may have less impact on voter sentiment than analysts assume. For example, President Lee Myung-bak faced the H1N1 outbreak in 2009-2010, which infected 700,000 Koreans and killed 260. Despite the high rate of infection, Lee’s approval rating grew to 54% during the height of the epidemic and still enjoyed 48% support by the time the outbreak was declared over in April 2010.

It is also true that every preceding South Korean presidential administration experienced a natural erosion of public support. About a month before the 2012 legislative elections, President Lee’s approval rating stood at a mere 26% – a shadow of President Moon’s current 42%, one month before elections on April 15, 2020. As KEI’s Junil Kim noted in a previous blog article, every South Korean president sees their ratings continue to fall as their term continues. In that sense, President Moon is actually playing with an advantage, having entered office in 2017 with historically high approval ratings.

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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U.S.-Korea Relations: The Obama Years

By Troy Stangarone

Summing up a presidential legacy is a complex endeavor. There are countless details that are either unknown or just too difficult to fit into the flow of a single piece. There are choice that in the immediate term may seem wise, but in the hindsight of years less so. While mistakes today may come to be viewed as prudent years on. This is even more the case when it deals with only a single aspect of one part of the presidency, the relationship between the United States and the Republic of Korea. A relationship that while vibrant and strong, is also inevitably tied to both countries’ relationship with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

For the last eight years, we’ve seen a relationship that has grown beyond the Cold War confines of the threat from North Korea and that has begun to evolve into more of a partnership that works together both in the region and on the global stage. This shift was possible in large thanks to the relationship that the Obama administration inherited and the partners they had to work with in South Korea under the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations.

When President George W. Bush handed U.S.-Korea relations over to President Barack Obama on January 20, 2009, he handed over an alliance that was in good shape. While the relationship between the United States and South Korea had been rocky at times during the early years of the Bush administration, even during those difficult times progress was made on the alliance. As a result President Obama inherited an alliance that was already growing and changing as Bush administration left a legacy of a completed but unratified free trade agreement with South Korea (KORUS FTA), and agreements to move U.S. Forces Korea from Seoul to Camp Humphreys near Pyongtaek and to transfer wartime control of South Korean forces back to the South Korean government.

Over the last eight years, the Obama administration has built on the foundations of the alliance it inherited. While the alliance remains rooted in the United States’ commitment to defend South Korea against North Korean aggression, the Obama administration has worked with South Korea to move the alliance beyond deterring North Korea. Perhaps most critically in this was the administration’s support for Lee Myung-bak administration’s efforts to see South Korea contribute more to the global community. As part of these efforts, the Obama administration supported Seoul’s efforts to host the G-20 leaders summit in 2010 and asked South Korea to host the second Nuclear Security Summit as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to enhance global nuclear security.

Beyond summits, the Obama administration has sought to increase cooperation with South Korea in a wide range of areas that are now referred to as the New Frontier issues and include areas such as cyber security, climate change and global health. As an example, in the area of global heath South Korea worked with the United States and other nations to deal with the Ebola outbreak in Africa in 2014.

In the economic relationship, the Obama administration engaged South Korea in additional negotiations to address concerns related to trade in autos with the KORUS FTA. After reaching an agreement, the KORUS FTA went into effect on  March 15, 2012. The administration also negotiated a new 123 agreement to continue civilian nuclear cooperation between the United States and South Korea.

At the core of the alliance, defense cooperation, the administration has proceeded and largely concluded the efforts begun by the Bush administration to move U.S. troops from Seoul to Camp Humphreys. It also updated the decision to transfer wartime operational control to South Korea by moving the agreement from a deadline based transition to a conditions based agreement that would implement the transition only once South Korea has developed the intelligence and command infrastructure necessary to undertake operational control of forces.

If the relationship with South Korea has been a boon for Obama, than it is the relationship with North Korea where the long eye of history may have more to say in the years to come. While he inherited a North Korea that had already tested a nuclear weapon, North Korea has gone on to conduct four additional nuclear tests during his time in office and he will pass along to the Trump administration a much more dangerous North Korea than he inherited.  Many have criticized the Obama Administration’s “strategic patience” approach, but alternatives are limited if the goal is a denuclearized North Korea within a short time span.  There may have been other tools that the Obama Administration used over the past eight years that are not in the public domain to prod change in North Korea that only time and change in North Korea may tell.

Much as in the case of South Korea, leadership has likely played a role in the deteriorating situation with North Korea. If President Obama was fortunate to have willing partners in South Korea, the death of Kim Jong-il left a much more aggressive Kim Jong-un in charge of North Korea. While Kim Jong-il famously slapped away Obama’s inaugural offer of talks, it is unclear if diplomacy could have played much of a role in convincing Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program.

Shortly after Kim Jong-un came to power, the Obama administration negotiated a moratorium on missile launches that North Korea would soon violate and despite efforts by the Park Geun-hye administration in South Korea to build relations with North Korea Kim Jong-un instead chose to greet her administration with confrontation through an ICBM test, a nuclear test, and the withdrawal of North Korean workers from the joint North-South industrial complex in Kaesong. It is perhaps telling that a U.S. administration that, despite domestic opposition, negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran and reopened relations with Myanmar and Cuba found North Korea an unwilling partner for improving relations.

With the path to negotiations closed the administration instead pursued a course of increasing pressure on North Korea. It’s perhaps most significant achievement on this end was the development of increased cooperation with China on sanctions in the United Nations. While the robust sanctions negotiated after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January of 2016 were found to have been flawed, those sanctions were revised after North Korea’s fifth nuclear test to close loopholes and being to bring real pressure on North Korea.

In addition to international sanctions, the administration took advantage of new sanctions authorities granted to it by Congress, though perhaps reluctantly and not to the degree critics of the administration might have hoped. Perhaps most significantly on this front, the administration has sanctioned both Kim Jong-un and his sister personally for their roles in human rights violations in North Korea.

Perhaps the last legacy item for the Obama administration in regards to North Korea has been its efforts to increase the deterrent capabilities of the alliance. It reached an agreement with South Korea to expand the range of South Korean missiles to allow Seoul to be able to target any area of North Korea and to help facilitate its “kill chain” concept of being out to take out North Korean nuclear facilities prior to an imminent attack. On the more controversial side, it also worked with Japan to develop new defense guidelines that would allow Japan to play a more active role if the U.S. were to come under attack and which would also aid in a contingency on the Korean peninsula and for the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to protect parts of South Korea against North Korean missile attacks.

For President Obama it will be a strong legacy he leaves with South Korea, a nation that he visited more often than all but France, the UK, Germany, and Mexico and developed close personal relationships. It is North Korea where time may judge him more harshly, or depending on the actions taken by Kim Jong-un and the Trump administration come to view him as prudent. By his own standards, President Obama has done well.  He once described his foreign policy philosophy as looking for singles and doubles, and “don’t do stupid s@#%.” By that standard, President Obama has managed U.S.-Korea relations well. He’s made progress on a range of issues and avoided serious mistakes, and despite challenges presented by North Korea, he stands to hand the alliance over to his successor, Donald Trump, much as President George W. Bush did to him, in good shape.

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

Photo from The White House’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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U.S.-Korea Relations after Obama’s Reelection

By Chad O’Carroll

When South Korea picks either a progressive or conservative leader next month, we will know the full extent of the impact of President Obama’s re-election on the next four years on the Korean peninsula. Whether Obama and the next leader of South Korea will be able to sustain the current momentum of the U.S. – Korea alliance remains an unanswered question. But while there is much to suggest that Obama is in an advantageous starting position to work on U.S.-Korea ties, there are nevertheless several areas of real concern as we move forward post the December election.

Having strengthened the U.S – Korea alliance and forged a close friendship over the past four years with President Lee Myung Bak, Obama has proven he has the ability to work well with even those at the opposite end of the South Korean political spectrum. Having signed off on the KORUS FTA and cooperated closely on major global issues, whoever takes power in South Korea this December will inherent an excellent relationship from Lee Myung-bak. However, as Ambassador Thomas Hubbard recently pointed out, political transitions can be difficult periods when it comes to U.S. – Korea relations.

If Park wins the election, her administration will inherit five years of tacit experience in working with the current White House, a great starting point to be sure. And while a progressive administration will be starting afresh with Obama, compared to a Romney victory they can at least benefit from an external working understanding of how the relationship has worked so far. However, there is always the risk that things could deteriorate from the status quo, especially when considering how important personal friendship has been to contributing to the success of U.S.-Korea relations of late.

What does an alliance look like when personal friendship is lacking? The case of Benjamin Netanyahu’s relations with Obama is a case in point, showing how tensions can emerge among allies when the personal relationships of the two leaders don’t chime. For Israel – U.S. relations, over the past four years seemingly impassable policy chasms have been accentuated by leaks, distrust and seemingly artificially created protocol issues. As a result, Obama is often obliged to reach out to the Israeli public in order to remind them that the U.S. is still committed to Israel’s security. While this is a strong example, it underscores the importance of mutual respect between leaders. Naturally, both Washington and Seoul will be eager to avoid a repeat of the acrimonious relations that Bush had with the late progressive president Roh.

Another trouble spot for U.S. – Korea relations circles around North Korea policy. With Obama likely feeling burnt by his last attempt to engage Pyongyang in the “Leap Day Agreement”, it is unclear how supportive the U.S. will be of the next South Korean administration’s North Korea policy. After all, all three Korean candidates are campaigning for increased inter-Korean engagement, with even the conservatives calling for comparatively radical initiatives such as the opening of liaison offices in Pyongyang. Here the problem comes down to how denuclearization is prioritized by South Korea when it comes to engagement. That’s because Obama may have a hard time reducing focus on the denuclearization of North Korea if he is to continue emphasizing his wider global non-proliferation strategy. As such, there is a risk that an incoming South Korean administration may wish to sequence this goal in a way that proves incompatible with Obama’s own policy positions.

An additional hurdle that could set back U.S. – Korea relations relates to Seoul’s domestic nuclear power infrastructure. The current U.S.-ROK nuclear energy agreement is due to expire in March 2014 and South Korea is now increasingly eager to make use of the spent fuel from its nuclear reactors. Having outlined a goal of processing the spent fuel through a capability known as pyroprocessing, South Korea hopes to potentially recycle fuel by using the transuranic elements in fast reactors. As the world’s sixth biggest exporter of nuclear power plants, South Korea has an understandable desire to close the nuclear fuel cycle – doing so will put it in an even better position to offer full range of nuclear services worldwide and attract additional contracts. However, if the ROK were to be allowed to develop a reprocessing facility there would be consequences for global non-proliferation regime and implications for the dismantling of the DPRK nuclear program. As such, it is a delicate issue that will require thoughtful diplomacy to resolve.

Although there are challenges ahead, it is important to remember that Obama is extremely popular in South Korea. Data in a recent opinion poll released by the German Marshall Fund shows that compared to ten years ago, public support for the U.S.-Korea alliance has doubled under Obama’s stewardship. As such, there will be a strong onus on the incoming president of South Korea to maintain the close and friendly ties that have characterized the past five years between Lee Myung-bak and Obama. Correspondingly, among the risks outlined there should still be cause for optimism.

Chad O’Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from art_es_anna’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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U.S.-Korea Relations: Let’s Maintain the High Standard

By Thomas C. Hubbard

Nearly five years ago, when Lee Myung-bak had just been elected President of Korea, I participated in a study group sponsored by Stanford University and The Korea Society aimed at drawing up a blueprint for a “New Beginning” in U.S.-Korea relations. The goal was to help the new administrations coming into power in both countries restore a sense of well-being to an alliance that was perceived to be adrift after five years of sometimes contentious stewardship by the conservative administration of George W. Bush in Washington and progressive administration of Roh Moo-hyun in Korea.  At the time we didn’t know who would be the next President of the United States, but we worried that public attitudes toward the alliance were at a low point in both countries and knew that our new leaders needed to rebuild a sense of common purpose if we were to deal with pressing issues such as North Korea and the modernization of our military ties and achieve ratification of the Free Trade Agreement negotiated by the Roh and Bush Administrations.  Presidents Lee and Obama more than fulfilled our hopes and expectations. Despite coming from different ends of the political spectrum, they projected a positive tone for the relationship from the outset.

As a result of their leadership, we all agree that the alliance is stronger today than ever before. President Obama and other U.S. leaders consistently refer to Korea as one of our most important allies and we often talk about a new strategic partnership. President Lee has likewise worked hard to develop his relationship with President Obama despite taking some hits at home over such issues as beef imports. Although some oppositionists still complain about the FTA, U.S.-Korea relations are not a significant issue in the Korean election campaign.  One might argue that the North Koreans helped bring us together through outrageous acts such as nuclear tests and unprecedented attacks on South Korean ships and naval vessels. Indeed the convergence of our views on North Korea, the best I’ve seen in two decades of dealing with this problem, is central to the health of our relationship, but there are a number of other factors bringing us closer together. At a time when many Americans are concerned about China and frustrated with Japan’s leadership vacuum, Washington’s relationship with Seoul has been valued as a welcome source of strength and stability. Americans admire Korea’s economic and democratic success and its willingness to take a leadership role in the world. Among other things, we are gratified to see the Korean President chair the G-20 and Nuclear Security Summit and, most recently, volunteer to host the global Green Climate Fund in a new state-of-the art city.

As Koreans and Americans vote this year, the challenge before us is not how to achieve a “new beginning” but, rather, how to maintain the high standard set by Presidents Obama and Lee for smooth and productive ties. This is no easy task.  Transitions are often a difficult period in U.S.-Korea relations, and this transition could be doubly so if we wind up with new administrations in both countries at the same time.  Many of us remember with some pain the difficult early meetings between Kim Young-sam and Bill Clinton, Kim Dae-jung and George W. Bush, and Roh Moo-hyun and George W. Bush.  Miscommunications at the Summit level can be overcome, but only with time and hard work. So my first bit of advice to the incoming administrations is to prepare well for the first Summit. It can be a mistake to rush the process.

My second bit of advice to both sides is to try to avoid posing litmus tests to each other in the early days of new administrations.  President Clinton wanted Kim Young-sam to support his “comprehensive” approach to North Korean denuclearization before the Korean President was prepared to accept the political consequences of a U.S. lead in dealing with North Korea. The reverse occurred when President Kim Dae-jung, who insisted on meeting with President Bush within weeks of his inauguration, was deeply embarrassed when the U.S. President was not yet prepared to endorse his Sunshine policy. It took years to get over this miscommunication and return to a common track on North Korea.  Judging from their campaign statements, all of the Korean Presidential candidates appear to be looking for new beginnings with North Korea, in hopes of overcoming the confrontational atmosphere that has prevailed under the Lee Myung-bak Administration. That is probably a laudable aspiration, one that should be supported by the United States if denuclearization remains a central objective.  However, our leaders may need to allow each other a little slack in the post election period.  Experience suggests that we will consult very closely if we are to stay on the same song sheet during political transitions.

Finally, the FTA, signed under Bush and Roh and ratified under Lee and Obama, is a wonderful legacy of two administrations in both countries. It represents a powerful new element in our strategic relationship, but it is also a trade agreement that must be made to work to our mutual economic benefit. That means that American businesses must take advantage of the opportunity to expand exports of goods and services to Korea.  It also means that both sides must fulfill the letter and spirit of the agreement. We must trust that the backsliding we have begun to see in some areas will be only a passing figment of the Korean election campaign.

It is clear that our two countries need each other in today’s complex world, and I have every hope that the upcoming elections will produce leaders who, like Lee Myung-bak and Barack Obama, respect each and understand the importance of the relationship.

Thomas C. Hubbard is Senior Director for Asia at McLarty Associates and Chairman of The Korea Society. He served as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 2001 to 2004. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Korea.net’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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What the Split Vote in Korea’s National Assembly Elections Means

By Troy Stangarone

Voting in the shadow of North Korea’s missile launch and a prospective third nuclear test, South Korean voters went to the polls on April 11 in an election that some 60 percent described as a referendum on the administration of President Lee Myung-bak.  Despite perceptions that there was widespread dissatisfaction in South Korea with the current administration, results indicate that South Koreans came away from the polls undecided about their nation’s future but giving a slim majority to the conservative New Frontier Party (NFP).

With almost all of the votes counted, the NFP had secured a small majority in the 300 seat National Assembly with at least 152 seats. Turnout was estimated at nearly 55 percent, which means that the results go somewhat against the grain of prior Korean elections as turnout near the 55 percent mark has historically favored liberals. However, the NFP’s slim majority means that Korea may avoid the gridlock that seemed likely when early polls indicated that neither of the major parties would secure an outright majority in the National Assembly. Though, that could change with defections and bi-elections in the years ahead, but for the moment the NFP’s slim majority means stability in the legislative branch.

The NFP’s victory also means we are unlikely to see any major foreign policy shifts in the near future. President Lee will remain in office for the rest of the year and he will now have support within the National Assembly to maintain his policies. The Democratic United Party (DUP) tried to make revision of the KORUS FTA a major point of its campaign, but the issue never seemed to gain traction as the DUP might have hoped. While the agreement may still remain a campaign issue, the DUP will likely shift its emphasis away from the FTA as it tries to build a winning coalition for the presidential election in December.

While the DUP may press for a softer policy towards North Korea, it seems unlikely to change in the near future as well. With even Russia calling North Korea’s satellite launch a violation of UN Security Council Resolutions and the prospect of a 3rd nuclear test in the near future, it seems unlikely that the Lee administration would change course in its final months despite pressure from the DUP.

One significant milestone from the elections related to North Korea is the likelihood that the first North Korean defector will be elected to the National Assembly. Cho Myong Chul, who is running as one of the proportional candidates for the NFP and seems likely to gain a seat based on the early results.

On the domestic front, less may divide the two parties than many realize. Both parties campaigned on platforms of strengthening Korea’s welfare state and implementing policies that would help small and medium sized businesses in the face of increasing competition from the Chaebols. This may provide opportunities for liberals and conservatives to work together in the National Assembly as the NFP will only have the smallest of margins with which to pass major legislation.

The big winner in the elections would seem to be Park Geun-hye. Runner up to Lee Myung-bak in the then Grand National Party’s (GNP) presidential primary five years ago, and presumptive nominee for the NFP this time, she is being credited with engineering the NFP’s turnaround. The election results should only enhance her chances in this fall’s presidential race.

However, in the long-run the National Assembly elections are only the first step in determining who will lead Korea. Much of the future foreign and trade policy will be shaped by the next occupant of the Blue House. While the quite support of Ahn Cheol-soo did not work as well for the DUP as it did during last fall’s Seoul mayoral election, there is one lesson for both parties from that campaign. Eight months in any political campaign is an eternity. After losing the mayor’s office in Seoul it seemed as though the then GNP was down and out. That didn’t happen and December is an eternity away.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute. His views are his own.

Photo from Chitra Chaaya’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Future of the U.S.-Korea Alliance and the National Assembly Elections

By Troy Stangarone

It has generally been acknowledged that the U.S.-Korea alliance is at an all time high. At a time of rising international challenges from the 2008 global financial crisis to enhanced efforts to secure nuclear materials, Korea has played an increasingly prominent role on the global stage and become a key partner for the United States.  Despite all of the progress the two sides have made in recent years, elections for the National Assembly in Korea on April 11th will likely be the firsts of a series of turning points over the next year that could reshape the alliance.

Over the next nine months, three critical elections will take place which will impact how U.S.-Korea relations evolve in the coming years. While the United States will hold presidential and Congressional elections in November, and Korea will vote for its next president in December, the National Assembly elections will come first and begin to indicate the potential directions of change.

Only a few months ago, the general consensus was that the opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) would cruise to a significant victory in the National Assembly.  The ruling Grand National Party, now the New Frontier Party (NFP), had lost a snap Seoul mayoral election in October to political novice Park Won-soon and despite the poor performance by the DUP trends seemed to be moving in the direction of progressives.  However, with six months being an eternity in politics, recent polling data from the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and other outlets indicates that the two parties are virtually tied and that the balance of power in the National Assembly will be held by smaller parties.

It is unclear if a coalition government in the National Assembly will work as smoothly as the Conservative-Liberal coalition in the United Kingdom or the minority Conservative government that ruled Canada until recently. Instead, there is a chance that without a working majority, either party might be pulled to the extremes by its coalition partner.  The most likely outcome would be the DUP needing votes from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to create a working majority. With the DPP being firmly against the KORUS FTA, it could push a DUP minority government in the National Assembly to take harder line positions on the agreement than it might otherwise want.

Adding to the complicated picture is the chance that liberal parties could end up in control of the legislature while the conservatives win the Blue House in the fall. While the parties have yet to nominate their candidates, Park Geun-hye of the NFP is the likely leading candidate, with political novice and independent Ahn Cheol-soo potentially another strong contender.

What will these, and changes in the United States later this year mean for the alliance? One potential outcome is something similar to what has become of the U.S.-Japan alliance in recent years. After reaching a high tide with the personal relationship between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and President George W. Bush, the relationship cooled as politics became more complicated in Japan and that warm personal relationship was removed from the equation.

One of the current strengths of U.S.-Korea relations is the close personal tie between President’s Barack Obama and Lee Myung-bak, who is perhaps President Obama’s closest ally abroad. Even should Obama be reelected, the nature of the relationship with a new president in Korea will likely change. Add in the likelihood of political gridlock in the National Assembly impacting U.S.-Korea issues, and one could see something similar to what happened in Japan occurring in Korea.

A second potential outcome could be an alliance where both parties seek to emphasize new interests. Regardless of who wins the presidential elections in the United States, the emphasis on the Asian pivot will likely remain. However, much of its focus to date has been on South Asia rather than Northeast Asia. At the same time, progressive forces in Korea could seek to move away from the heavy level of cooperation with the United States and seek greater balance in Korea’s relations with other nations. Under this scenario, while the United States and Korea would remain cordial allies, the current level of coordination and cooperation would likely be scaled back.

Another factor will be who wins the U.S. and Korean presidential elections. One of the strong aspects of the current relationship is the close level of coordination between the United States and Korea on North Korea policy. However, even Park Geun-hye and other conservatives have indicated a new approach to North Korea may be needed. If Mitt Romney were to win the presidency, there could be a push for a more hard-line policy in the United States at the same time Korea sought to go another direction.

From the Korean side, should Ahn Cheol-soo decide to run for the presidency and win, he could create a completely unknown dynamic. While he continues to flesh out his political philosophy, he has indicated a desire to move beyond ideological politics. How this would translate in practicality is unclear.  Alternatively, he could serve as a kingmaker endorsing the progressive candidate of his choice much as he did in the Seoul mayoral election.

Whoever wins the elections on April 11th, or later this fall, the nature of the relationship will begin to change. Each of the parties will bring new interests and new perspectives on the alliance. This will not necessarily be a bad thing. Alliances grow and evolve over time. While the Roh Moo-hyun years were often contentious, they were also highly productive years in terms of negotiating the KORUS FTA and restructuring the security aspects of the alliance. That being said, U.S.-Korea relations will soon begin transitioning from the close relationship of the last few years to a more normal alliance.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director of Congressional Affairs and Trade for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

Image from Jens-Olaf’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Prospects for Inter-Korean Economic Cooperation after Kim Jong-il

By Yu, Byoung-gyu 

The sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has increased uncertainty regarding the future of inter-Korean economic cooperation. The prospects for economic cooperation between the two Koreas can be considered from both short term and a medium to longer term perspectives.

In the short term, deadlock on economic cooperation will likely continue. North Korea needs to work to stabilize the new political regime under Kim Jong-un and to promote the policies of necrocracy, while in the current environment, South Korea lacks much impetus to try and increase its economic relations with the DPRK.

But from a mid-to long-term perspective, it is plausible that economic cooperation between the two Koreas could be revitalized in a stronger way than ever seen before. The North Korean government needs this cooperation to sustain itself, and in realizing the goal of creating a “strong and prosperous nation”.  It is absolutely essential for North Korea to present a long term vision to resolve its basic economic difficulties. In the months preceding his death, this may have been why Kim Jong-il focused so much time in visiting sites related to economic activity.

In 2011, Kim Jong-il made a total of 143 public visit around the country in which he made 59 economic visits (41.3%), 39 military visits (27.3%), 16 visits related to foreign affairs, (11.2%), and 29 visits in the category of “other” (20.3%). It is anticipated that North Korea will proceed in expanding the limited reforms and in opening up the economy to secure foreign capital and improve people’s living standards. In particular, as the “guardians” of Kim Jong-un, people like Jang Sung-taek (constructed 100,000 housing units in Pyongyang, led development in Hwanggeumpyeong and Nason, visited Seoul as economic inspector), Kim Kyong-hui (Director of the light industry Department of the Worker’s Party of Korea), and Kim Yang-gun (Director of the United Front Department of Chosun), are all expected to have significant interest in areas such as securing foreign capital and improving people’s living standards.

Economic improvement in North Korea is also very important to the South, potentially helping to alleviate tension and bring peace to the Korean Peninsula. Additionally, cooperation would provide the economy of the South with a new dimension for economic growth. Above all, cross-border cooperation will help expand domestic demand. The volume of domestic demand is determined by the size of population as well as income levels. A nation is required to secure a certain level of population in order to independently manage its own economy while promoting industrial development. However, South Korea`s population is declining due to its record-low birthrate. If inter-Korean economic cooperation is stimulated, a market with a population of nearly 100 million consumers can be secured. It will offer new hope for light industries and small to medium-sized companies, which have deepened an economic bipolarization due to their falling competitiveness. In fact, some textile and footwear manufacturers which invested in China or Vietnam after securing competitiveness and profitability at the Gaeseong Industrial Complex in North Korea, are now showing signs of relocating their operations back to the Korean peninsula. At the Gaeseong complex, a project that marries South Korean capital and technology with cheap labor from the North, South Korean companies produce clothes, utensils and watches, as well as electronic and machinery parts, employing more than 47,000 North Korean workers.

The creation of new demand will also ease excess supply concerns of the South Korea’s key industrial players, including manufacturers of steel, cars and ships. Geopolitical risks on the Korean peninsula can also be reduced if the two Koreas increase economic dependence on each other, as evidenced by the relations between China and Taiwan. These two countries have steadily expanded bilateral economic cooperation in spite of their prolonged military confrontations. They eventually signed the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, accomplishing the so-called “Chi-wan” (China+Taiwan) economic integration. The deepening of economic interconnections will ultimately help eliminate ideological confrontations by increasing the opportunity cost caused by military conflicts.

It will be important to have enthusiasm and willingness to maintain and expand inter-Korean economic cooperation under a strategy to promote the sustained prosperity of the Korean nation in the future. Regardless of political party, faction and ideology, mid- to long-term visions and strategies for inter-Korean economic cooperation should be established and faithfully carried out. Like China-Taiwan relations, the two Koreas should take advantage of practical strategies and measures to fully guarantee business cooperation regardless of mounting military tensions. In fact, the activity of private enterprises should be used to ease military tensions and safeguard communication channels. In order to ripen the environment for inter-Korean economic cooperation, it is essential to foster working-level experts on North Korea rather than political theorists.

Multilateral measures should be also pursued to enhance international cooperation to ensure the success of inter-Korean economic cooperation. If China, Russia, the United States, Europe and international organizations become involved in various inter-Korean economic cooperation and development projects, they can proceed smoothly regardless of conflicts between the two Koreas. Eventually, the economic cooperation between South and North Korea will and should be increased.

Yu, Byoung-gyu is the Executive Director of Hyundai Research Institute & also a visiting scholar at SAIS 

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Kim Chong-un and Pyongyang’s Signaling Campaign

By Ken E. Gause

Three sets of messages have emerged from the North Korean media in the days since Kim Chong-il’s death on December 17. The first two sets of messages are tied to the leadership configuration that is rising up to take over the reins of power, namely Kim Chong-un supported by a collective group of close aides and regents. The third message is that the regime will continue to adhere to the policy line set down by Kim Chong-il, namely the Songun (Military First) Policy. Together these messages support a regime plan for a smooth transfer of power, which by all indications appears to have taken place. Going forward, what does this mean for the regime and the young man who would be king?

With regard to Kim Chong-un, the regime appears to have launched a blitz campaign to portray him as the legitimate successor to his father, removing any doubt within the mind of the public and elite alike over who is in charge. Particular emphasis has been placed on Kim Chong-un’s bona fides as the leader of the Party and, just as important, the military. On December 24, the 20th anniversary of Kim Chong-il’s assumption of the post of Supreme Commander in 1991, Kim Chong-un visited his father’s funeral bier for a third time. Accompanying the young successor were members of the KWP Central Military Committee (CMC), the National Defense Commission, major commanding officers of the KPA, staff members of the KPA Supreme Command, and commanding officers of the KPA’s large combined units. In other words, it was a ceremonial gathering of the high command. On the same day, the Party daily, Nodong Sinmun, ran a commemorative political essay calling Kim Chong-un the “supreme commander” of the military. Two days later, the same source referred to Kim as leading the KWP CMC, although he only formally holds the title vice chairman.

What seems to be happening is that the regime is using the mourning period to rapidly move through the third phase of the succession, a phase in which the heir apparent would be adorned with the titles of power. In the coming months, if not weeks according to some sources, we can expect that a formal meeting of the Korean Worker’s Party will be convened to convey at least the title of CMC chairman on Kim Chong-un, which, according to the recently revised Party Charter (Article 22), carries with it the title of General Secretary of the Party. On 30 December, the Politburo passed a decree formally transferring the post of Supreme Commander to Kim Chong-un in accordance with his father’s will. Now all military units are required to obey Kim Chong-un’s orders.

The role of Supreme Commander (Choson inmin’gun ch’oego) raises an important question. Will Kim Chong-un be made chairman of the National Defense Commission, a post that is responsible for commanding the armed forces (i.e., the Supreme Commander)? Although the North Korean media called for Kim Chong-un to assume the role of Supreme Commander, it has been mute on the post of NDC chairman. The regime may choose to leave the NDC post vacant. Much as Kim Il-sung became the eternal president, Kim Chong-il might become the eternal head of the NDC, an organization that embodied his leadership era. This scenario might have been tipped by the fact that at least one, if not more, of the funeral events have been handled by Chon Hui-chong, the protocol director for the NDC. This suggests the possibility that the NDC apparatus is already acting in the service of the Party’s CMC. In addition, the key members of the NDC, such as O Kuk-yol and Paek Se-pong (head of the powerful Second Economic Committee), who do not also sit on leading Party bodies, have been integrated into the funeral lists among the government leadership, not singled out, as in the past, as part of the NDC.

These clues aside, Kim Chong-un has already been proclaimed the Supreme Leader (ch’eogo ryo’ngdoja), a title that is currently constitutionally linked to the NDC chairman (Article 100). If Kim Chong-un does not assume this post, the constitution will have to be revised (via the convening of the Supreme People’s Assembly) to separate the posts of Supreme Leader and NDC chairman.

As the funeral ceremonies have played out, the leadership configuration around the Kim Chong-un has come into focus. It is made of several rings and is based in the Party, but largely tied to the high command. The inner core will serve as gatekeepers and most likely be involved in decision-making.

  • VMAR Yi Yong-ho, as director of the General Staff Department, has operational control over the armed forces. A long time associate of the Kim family, he oversees one of the key support groups within the military that is supporting Kim Chong-un. This group is made up of officers in their 50s and 60s generally considered the rising stars among the field commanders and high command. VMAR Yi through this network will be instrumental in keeping the military in check during the transition period.
  • Gen. Chang Song-taek, who has oversight of the internal security apparatus and the economy portfolio, is well situated to support Kim Chong-un in the running of the daily operations of the regime. He is versed in both policy execution and in the machinations revolving around personnel appointments that will be critical for Kim to consolidate his power.
  • Gen. Kim Kyong-hui in the period between her brother’s death on December 17 and the final mourning ceremonies jumped from 14th to 5th in the formal leadership rankings. She will likely play an advisory role and serve as a key arbitrator within the Kim family as well as the larger North Korean leadership.
  • Gen. O Kuk-yol is a long time Kim family loyalist. He, too, jumped within the power rankings from 29th to 13th. His primary responsibility will be to ensure regime stability. His input into decision-making will be limited, but his opinion could carry weight in deliberations involving tradeoffs between reform and security.

The outer ring of this leadership configuration is centered in the Party’s CMC, which is made up of key second and third generation military and security officials from the across the regime. Kim Chong-il’s reinvigoration of the CMC at the Third Party Conference has placed this body on par with the NDC in terms of reach and influence. Under Kim Chong-un, the CMC will most likely replace the NDC as the command post of Military First Politics. It will be responsible for crafting the “great successor’s” image, gathering loyalty toward the new regime, and running the country. In terms of Kim’s relationship with the military, three CMC members are particularly crucial during the transition period. All accompanied Kim Chong-un as he escorted his father’s hearse through the streets of Pyongyang.

  • VMAR Kim Yong-chun, as Minister of People’s Armed Forces, oversees the logistics and training of the military. He will serve, along with Chang Song-taek, as a key conduit to the NDC. In addition he has past service in the KWP Organization Guidance Department and the KPA’s General Political Department, which give him invaluable experience in sniffing out potential disloyalty within the armed forces. It was reportedly his surveillance in this regard that contributed to the staunching of the Sixth Corps incident in the mid-1990s.
  • Gen. Kim Chong-gak is the acting head of the KPA’s General Political Bureau, a responsibility he assumed with the death of Cho Myong-nok. According to North Korean leadership protocol, the director of the GPB, which is the lead agency for ensuring Party control over the military, is the de facto third ranking member in the high command behind the heads of the MPAF and GSD.
  • Gen. U Tong-chuk, as first vice director of the State Security Department, oversees the country’s powerful secret police. Gen. U is a leading member of a key support group to Kim Chong-un composed of general grade officers within the security services. Presumably other members of this group include Gen. Yun Chong-rin, commander of the General Guard Command, and Gen. Kim Won-hong, the commander of the Military Security Command. These organizations form the inner ring for internal security insideNorth Korea.

Other individuals with military portfolios bear watching, such as O Il-chong (director of the KWP Military Department), Kim Kyong-ok (first vice director of the OGD for military affairs), and Choe Ryong-hae (KWP Secretary for Military Affairs). They have important roles to play in monitoring the loyalty of the armed forces and ensuring a smooth transition. They will also be critical to creating and facilitating a unified and centralized Party guidance system that invests the “great successor” with the ideological authority he will need to rule. Media coverage, however, does not suggest they will be within Kim Chong-un’s inner circle, at least initially.

The final set of signals being sent by the regime in the days following Kim Chong-il’s death is tied to policy. KCNA proclaimed on 26 December that under Kim Chong-un, Military First Politics “will be given steady continuity at all times.” This was seconded by an editorial in Nodong Sinmun entitled “Korean people will accomplish the cause of Songun (Military First) under leadership of Kim Chong-un.” This adherence to the policy line set down by Kim Chong-il was emphatically reiterated in a NDC statement on 30 December, which ruled out any policy change with regard toSouth Korea as long as the Lee Myong-bok administration is in power. Given the sensitive nature of the inter-Korean relationship, the new regime’s decision to opt for hardline continuity is not surprising since it will give Kim Chong-un a year to consolidate his position before having to take on the entrenched interests within the military that balk at dialog with Seoul.

But is this initial hardline stance a harbinger of a regime that will remain entrenched and unmoving? Currently, it is hard imagine a radical shift. Authoritative statements have no doubt linked Kim Chong-un’s name to a go slow approach toward the South (even before the NDC announcement) and an embrace of the country’s nuclear weapons capability (“a victory through songun politics”). These will likely remain lines in the sand for the regime for the foreseeable future. As noted in numerous articles, Kim Chong-un is “endlessly loyal to the idea and cause of the great general [Kim Chong-il].”

In the coming days, possibly after a 100-day mourning period, Kim will likely receive the formal positions befitting his position as Supreme Leader. As this process plays out, North Korean policymaking will probably remain firmly within the boundaries set down by Kim Chong-il. This was made clear in the Joint Editorial proclaiming the regime’s goals for 2012. For those looking for radical shifts, either on the domestic or international fronts, only time will tell if that is in the cards.

Ken Gause is the director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, a research organization located in Alexandria, VA. He is the author of the book North Korea Under Kim Chong-il: Power, Politics, and Prospects for Change, which was published by Praeger in August 2011. He also authored a paper in November entitled North Korea After Kim Chong-il: Leadership Dynamics and Potential Crisis Scenarios, which can be obtained on CNA’s website. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Zennie62’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Year in Review: The Korean Peninsula in 2011

By Troy Stangarone

While 2011 will ultimately be remembered for the passing of Kim Jong-il, it was also a year of significant change and new milestones for both South Korea and the U.S.-Korea alliance.

In many ways, 2011 really began in the waning days of 2010 for South Korea. On November 23 last year, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island, killing two civilians and two members of the South Korean military. The attack sealed a chill in relations between North and South Korea that would set the tone for the first half of 2011. By the time both sides began to make progress towards the end of the year that could have led to the resumption of the Six Party Talks, Kim Jong-il had passed away.

At the same time, barely two weeks after the shelling of Yeonpyong Island, the United States and South Korea reached a supplementary agreement on the KORUS FTA that paved the way for the agreement to be passed four years after originally being concluded. Despite political delays over remaining political issues in Washington and in Seoul, the long stalled agreement was passed by Congress on October 12 during President Lee Myung-bak’s summit visit and the National Assembly during a surprise session on November 22.

Having resolved long-standing concerns over the FTA, it is now set to coming into effect early next year. Representing a significant deepening of U.S.-Korea relations, the FTA signifies an important milestone for both sides in remaking the alliance into a broad based 21st century partnership that extends beyond mutual concerns about North Korea. However, despite the importance of the agreement politically and economically, the politics surrounding it may seep into 2012 as the opposition in South Korea has continued to call for the agreement’s renegotiation.

Korea also saw success on the Olympic front in 2011. After bidding previously for the 2010 and 2014 Olympic Games, Pyeongchang easily beat out Munich and Annecy for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.  With the International Olympic Committee awarding Korea the 2018 Winter Games, Korea will join the United States, Italy, Germany, France, Japan, and Russia as the only nations to host both Winter and Summer Olympic Games.

Despite lingering concerns regarding the KORUS FTA, 2011 was an important year for South Korea when it comes to trade. On July 1, the EU FTA came into force, making it the world’s largest bilateral free trade agreement and in early December South Korea overcame the headwinds of uncertainty from the euro zone crisis to pass the $1 trillion threshold in total trade for the first time.  South Korea reached the $1 trillion mark in total trade in a short six years after first crossing the $500 billion threshold and during some of the worst economic times since the Second World War. Barring a meltdown in the euro zone, which remains a real possibility, the EU FTA and newly implemented KORUS FTA will likely help South Korea to continue to expand its trade volume in the coming year.

On the diplomatic front, there were a series of milestones. The summit meeting between Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Barak Obama in October was universally seen as a high water mark in U.S.-Korea relations and representative of a strengthening of ties in recent years.  South Korea continued its efforts to become more of a global player as it hosted the 4th High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan and is set to host the next Nuclear Security Summit in 2012. On a bilateral level, Ambassador Sung Kim became the first Korean-American to be posted to Seoul, capping a year of deepening ties between Washington and Seoul.

At the same time, the future holds uncertainty for the relationship. Like much of the world, South Korea is beginning to feel the effects of political change. In the November Seoul mayoral election, the Grand National Party (GNP) was unable to hold on to the mayor’s office, but the Democratic Party (DP) was unable to capitalize on the GNP’s difficulties. Instead, social networking and a desire for change from politics as usual led to the surprise victory of the independent Park Won-soon in the mayor’s race and the failure of the DP to gain any traction in the election. The aftershocks have already seen the DP merge with a party of supporters of former President Roh Moo-hyun to form the new Democratic Unity Party and a push for greater change in the GNP.

Despite the prospect for political change in South Korea, the most sweeping changes of 2011 have occurred in North Korea. With the surprise death of Kim Jong-il, the succession process put in place during the September, 2010 Workers Party Conference was unexpectedly pushed forward. In recent days the regime has worked to choreograph a smooth transition to Kim Jong-un as the military has publically referred to Kim-Jong-un as its “supreme commander”  and he has been promoted to top post in the Korean Workers Party Central Committee.  However, it is still unclear if Kim Jong-un will govern with complete authority as his father did, or North Korea will move towards a collective leadership structure where Kim Jong-un serves as a figure head. What does seem clear, despite uncertainty about the future ability of the regime and Kim Jong-un to maintain its hold on power, is that the passing of Kim Jong-il will presage a change in how North Korea is governed.

On a lighter note, South Korea saw the debut of Saturday Night Live Korea (SNLK), a spinoff of the popular U.S. satire. While early indications are that SNLK will be as irreverent as its American counterpart, that might not be a bad thing. Given the uncertainty that lies ahead in North Korea with the death of Kim Jong-il, many Koreans might just need a good laugh in 2012 as many of the events of 2011 linger into next year and they ponder their own future.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director of Congressional Affairs and Trade for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from David Hepworth’s photostream in flickr Creative Commons.

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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.