Tag Archive | "military affairs"

How Might Joe Biden as President Deal with Korea?

By Robert R. King

In 2001, Senator Joe Biden became Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  At the time, I was Chief of Staff for Congressman Tom Lantos of California, who had just became Ranking Democratic Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier that same year.  Before Lantos’ election to Congress, he had spent a few years in the late 1970s as a senior foreign policy advisor to Biden, and the two of them had become close friends.  They had traveled together internationally on many occasions, and after 1981 when both were serving in Congress, they worked together on a number of international projects.

Lantos set up a meeting in 2001 to talk with Biden about how the two might work together on a number of fractious foreign affairs issues since both were the leading Democrats of the foreign policy committees of the House and the Senate.  We met in Biden’s personal office in the Russel Senate Office Building, and as Democratic Staff Director Lantos invited me to join the meeting with Biden and his committee chief of staff.

We arrived just as Biden got back from a vote in the Senate chamber, and we were together for an hour or so before Lantos had to hurry back for a vote in the House of Representatives.  The meeting began with Biden discussing in great detail the previous evening’s episode of The West Wing—the American serial political drama (1999-2006) which was widely praised by critics, political science professors, former White House staffers, and which received 26 Prime Time Emmy awards including four awards for Outstanding Drama Series.

Biden was deeply into the issues raised in that television episode.  He had been a presidential candidate for a time during the 1988 campaign, and he was known to have presidential ambitions.  After hearing his analysis of The West Wing it was clear to me that he was still interested.  Biden’s interest in The West Wing episode focused on two issues:  how do you define what is the right decision on a public policy issue and how carry it out within a democratic system that requires approval of a fractious Congress and everything is done in the media spotlight.  His analysis convinced me he understood the political process and he had the right values.

With Joe Biden now President-elect Biden, pundits and astrologers are beginning the parlor game “What will President Biden do about _____ [insert your favorite issue].”  Unlike the election of Donald Trump four years ago, we have a much better idea of what Biden is likely to do.  He has a long track record in the realm of public policy, while Trump’s previous experience was limited to being a reality television personality and selling his name on properties whose mortgages were held by Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes.

Biden was a United States Senator for 36 years, and he was a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for that time.  He was chair of the committee for 3½ years and it’s Ranking Democratic Member for 8½ years.   Most recently he served 8 years as Vice President, where he was involved in the highest level discussions, particularly on foreign affairs.  The principal reason Biden was chosen to be President Obama’s running mate in 2008 was his foreign policy experience, which Obama lacked.

What could we expect President-elect Biden to do with regard to policy on Korea when he moves into the Oval Office?  What might be different than what we have seen over the last four years?

Likely Policies toward South Korea

Biden gave a “Special contribution” to Yonhap, a principal South Korean news agency, that provides some indication of the President-elect’s thoughts on Korea policy.  The piece entitled “Hope for Our Better Future” was principally focused on issues that Korean-Americans would be most concerned about—immigration to the United States, the failure of President Trump to deal with the Covid pandemic, and economic recovery.  He also emphasized the South Korean and United States cooperation and sacrifice in the Korean War.

A couple of sentences were particularly forward-looking:  “As President, I’ll stand with South Korea, strengthening our alliance to safeguard peace in East Asia and beyond, rather than extorting Seoul with reckless threats to remove our troops.  I’ll engage in principled diplomacy and keep pressing toward a denuclearized North Korea and a unified Korean Peninsula, while working to reunite Korean Americans separated from loved ones in North Korea for decades.”

Biden has been a particularly vocal advocate of United States allies, and he has supported international cooperation to deal with common international problems.  Trump, on the other hand, has disengaged with the international community.  It is been not just “America first,” but America alone.  Trump has demanded that South Korea (and Japan) pay considerably more to maintain U.S. troops there, and his belligerent pressure tactics reflect his background as a brash real estate mogul rather than a diplomatic approach to a common national security problem for both the U.S. and South Korea.  This is very much like pulling out of the World Health Organization and defaulting on a $62 million obligation to the UN agency in the midst of an international pandemic.

United States relations with South Korea are impacted by the U.S.-China relationship, and even under Biden there are likely to be issues that will require diplomatic effort to navigate.  Biden, however, will be more sophisticated in diplomacy.  Trump thinks in terms of his real estate tycoon Art of the Deal mentality, whereas Biden understands the importance of careful diplomatic negotiation.

Likely Policies Toward North Korea

Look for less focus on summit meetings with the North Korean leader from President Biden.  In less than two years President Trump has met three times with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.  Despite international media frenzy for all three meetings, the President has little to show for his effort.  The Singapore summit (June 2018) received international attention, the United States received 55 sets of remains, some of which may be U.S. military servicemen.  The Hanoi summit (February 2019) ended abruptly and before final meetings were held with recriminations for the failure.  The third meeting was a hand-shake at the DMZ border with nothing of substance accomplished.

The principal reason for the failure of the meetings was that senior staff were not given the mandate to pull together agreements that both sides were willing to accept.  The two leaders exchanged “beautiful letters,” “love letters,” but nothing of substance resulted.  As one Biden advisor said “There’s no question that the era of love letters will be over.”  Look for Biden to meet with Kim only if a meeting has been thoroughly prepared in advance.  A photo op will not be enough to justify a meeting with the President of the United States.

North Korea seems to have missed the possibility that Vice President Biden might become the U.S. President, because they have been especially negative in name calling the United States’ new leader.  A year ago in November 2019, the North Korean news agency KCNA was particularly critical of Joe Biden, then one of several Democratic candidates for President.  (Keep in mind that in North Korea KCNA is the official voice of the government—the equivalent of the White House spokesperson, not something like The Washington Post or CNN expressing a point of view.)

Biden was repeatedly called a dog—“a rabid dog only keen on getting at other’s throats. . . . wandering about like a starving field dog. . . . No wonder, even the Americans call him ‘1% Biden’ with low I.Q. . . . ‘mad Biden’”  He “had the temerity to dare slander the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK,” and this “was the last-ditch efforts of the rabid dog expecting his death.”

The era of “love letters” with North Korea may be over, but that does not mean that the United States will end its efforts to engage North Korea and reach a deal on denuclearization. But it will take a different approach, one that is less personal and more professional. A more professional approach to North Korea and a focus on restoring trust in the U.S.-Korea alliance are two key changes that we should expect from President-elect Biden.

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.   

Image from Gage Skidmore’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Where do Biden and Trump Voters Stand on U.S.-Korea relations?

By Juni Kim

Next week’s U.S. presidential election has, to put it mildly, significant implications for the future of U.S.-Korea relations. The Trump administration’s aggressive approach to rethinking U.S. alliances has unnerved longstanding allies like South Korea. The last four years saw the renegotiation of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, U.S. demands for South Korea to pay more for military costs, and Trump’s push for withdrawing U.S. troops stationed abroad. Stalled peace talks with North Korea also underline the continuing danger of North Korea’s increasingly capable missile and nuclear arsenal.

To understand where American voters stand on important issues on U.S.-Korea relations, KEI commissioned a study by YouGov that surveyed 1,064 American adults on August 26th to the 31st. Respondents were asked both who they voted for in the 2016 presidential election and who they would likely vote for in next week’s election. The results show that despite a split response among likely Biden and Trump voters on approving the Trump administration’s overall handling of South Korea and North Korea, there is clear agreement by American voters on specific policy issues like North Korea’s denuclearization and stationing U.S. troops in South Korea.

When asked on approving or disapproving of the current administration’s handling of relations with North Korea, 70% of likely Biden voters predictably disapproved while 69% of likely Trump approved. The split is similar for respondents who voted in the 2016 presidential election, with 72% of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton voters who disapproved and 74% of 2016 Trump voters who approved. On approving or disapproving of the administration’s handling of relations with South Korea, 22% of likely Biden voters approved and 65% of likely Trump voters approved.

Despite the wide split on the administration’s overall approach to North Korea and South Korea, U.S. voters generally agree on how important it is for North Korea to give up is nuclear arsenal. Likely Biden and Trump voters responded nearly identically with 89% and 88% respectively believing it is very important or important. There is some divergence when voters were asked about the U.S. providing humanitarian assistance to North Korean citizens. More likely Biden voters (60%) are in favor of providing assistance than likely Trump voters (47%), though there are still more Trump voters approving of assistance than disapproving (25%).

U.S. voters also show general agreement on the benefits of U.S.-South Korea trade, the U.S.-South Korea military alliance, and support for U.S. troop presence in South Korea. 74% of likely Biden voters and 67% of likely Trump voters believe that U.S. trade with South Korea is beneficial for the United States, and 68% of both sets of voters believe the U.S.-South Korea military alliance is in U.S. national security interests. Despite Trump’s critical view of U.S. troop presence abroad, including in South Korea, more likely Trump voters (66%) are in favor of maintaining or increasing troop presence in South Korea than likely Biden voters (59%).

Even in the current divisive political climate, the results reflect an understanding by Americans regardless of voter preference of the importance of the U.S. commitment to South Korea and the seriousness of the North Korean threat. While voters may be divided on Trump’s own performance, the public consensus should be noted by the next administration and how it approaches relations to the Korean peninsula.

Juni Kim is the Senior Manager for Operations and Technology at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Graphics created by Juni Kim. Cover image created by Juin Kim from photos on Gage Skidmore’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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South Korea Weighs Alternative Military Service Programs for Pop Culture Artists

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

  • Lawmakers are considering a proposal to draft BTS for a campaign to promote the Dokdo Islets in lieu of serving their traditional military duties.
  • Proponents of the idea argue that the K-pop band would help raise international visibility on the territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan over the islets.
  • This comes after BTS roared to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 songs chart with their debut English-language single “Dynamite.”

Implications: Adoption of alternative military service for pop culture icons is consistent with an existing policy framework that sees conscription exemption as a tool to elevate Korea’s international standing. Under the current Military Service Act, male athletes who win medals in the Olympic Games or gold medals in the Asian Games are granted exemptions from military service. This measure was intended to raise South Korea’s international standing during the Cold War when the country competed with North Korea for diplomatic recognition. While some groups advocate for reforms to provide young people with more freedoms, the special arrangement for pop culture icons comes from the old line of thinking that places the interest of the nation ahead of the individual.

Context: In South Korea, all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 28 are required to serve in the military for about two years as part of the country’s national defense against North Korea. While athletes have the opportunity to earn an exemption, musicians with high international visibility like BTS are not currently accorded the same privilege. The defense ministry recently announced that it is looking into an option that would allow BTS members a postponement of their mandatory enlistment until the age of 30. Since early September, more than 1,8000 people have signed a petition urging President Moon Jae-in to grant members of the K-pop band a special military service exception.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Sophie Joo, Sonia Kim, and Chris Lee.

Picture from flickr account of Uyên Nochu

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North Korea’s October 10 Parade

By Stephan Haggard

If you read the media coverage of North Korea’s “military parade,” you would be justified in thinking it was just that. However, the event marked the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers Party, not the Korean People’s Army. Indeed, the highly choreographed display is designed to show that the military is subordinate to the leadership and the party, not the other way around. Most of the expert analysis has rightly focused on the new weapons on display, and I touch on that issue too. But Kim Jong Un’s speech had some things to say about the ongoing shocks hitting North Korea, COVID, nuclear doctrine and even Kim Jong-un’s new populist ruling style and theatrical inclinations.

L’état, c’est moi

A core feature of “democratic centralism”—Lenin’s infamous oxymoron—is that the party embodies the general will of the people. What need for elections and the other trappings of democratic rule if the party sees clearly the true interests of the nation? Kim Jong-un notes how the party represents the people and they respond in kind, achieving a seamless fusion of interests:

“No one can think about even a moment of our Party’s glorious 75-year history without our great people, an omnipotent creator of history. They have always provided it with wisdom and resourcefulness as a wise mentor, infused it with inexhaustible strength and courage, defended it at the cost of their lives, supported it sincerely and turned its plans and lines into reality.”

North Korea, however, is a personalist regime and in Kim’s speech he used populist appeals that bear a family resemblance to those of autocrats elsewhere. The title of Nadia Urbanati’s great book on populism captures the idea well: Me The People. Kim Jong-un tears up in talking about the great trust the people have placed in him personally, and even apologizes openly for his shortcomings with respect to the economy; this could signal a new focus on economic issues at the upcoming party congress. But the apology proves only a feint, for the more the people have suffered the more it shows their devotion and the more it provides the strength for the autocrat to continue being autocratic:

“Even if it may mean suffering more, our people’s trust in me and our Party is always absolute and steadfast…As I enjoy this greatest trust which no one in this world can ever expect, I have been able to confront without hesitation all manner of challenges remembering the mission and will to make selfless, devoted efforts for the good of the people, jump into do-or-die battles, which would lead even to a war, and uncompromisingly cope with the disasters unprecedented in history.”

We would not have seen this kind of approach—let alone the open emotionalism—from Kim Jong-il; a new populist governing style is clearly at work.

The Crisis Continues

That said, times remain hard and getting out in front of that fact may be the only plausible public relations strategy the leadership has at its disposal. For Kim Jong-un’s populist line of political reasoning to work, the hardships being endured have to be pinned on someone else and the sanctions-wielding international community and COVID are the most obvious candidates. The speech continued the openly dour tone of the regime’s own pronouncements since at least the 5th Plenum in December 2019. That year saw the first open admission in years of serious food shortages, followed by a rapid food assessment by the World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization in May that detailed the production shortfalls and even provided survey evidence of household distress.

Chinese sanctions have resulted in a dramatic fall off in North Korean exports over the course of 2019, but Chinese exports to the North remained surprisingly buoyant. When the regime rightly decided to take COVID seriously, the China trade dropped to practically nothing, at least in the official statistics. While the regime clings to the myth that there are no COVID cases in North Korea, magnanimously offering condolences to other countries, the speech openly admits the cost of vigilance; indeed, the pandemic makes several appearances in the speech as an indirect source of the country’s economic travails.

Foreign Policy and the Weapons

Economic motives may have been at work in the brief but friendly mention of the South (that the “day would come when the north and south take each other’s hand again.”) The weapons on display, however, suggested that North Korea continues to invest heavily in a number of missile platforms.  Analysis of these will be forthcoming over the course of the week, and there is the mock-up problem; we don’t know how far along these weapons are and they have certainly not been tested. But Vann van Diepen and Michael Elleman have a good first pass at 38North; interestingly, state media in China also offered detailed analysis.

The two biggest surprises were a massive new road-mobile (but probably liquid-fueled) ICBM, sitting atop an 11-axle transporter erector launcher (a Hwasong 16 if the we continue the numbering convention) and a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (the Pukguksong 4). The larger question—as always—is what are the North Koreans doing? The simple answer is that this is not so much a political signal as it is yet another step on the road to the deterrent capacity they want to acquire. Sometimes it makes sense to simply take the North Koreans at their word. In Kim Jong-un’s words:

“We have built a deterrent with which we can satisfactorily control and manage any military threats that we are facing or may face. Our military capability is changing in the rate of its growth and in its quality and quantity in our own style and in accordance with our demands and our timetable.”

A larger ICBM could permit more decoys, heavier payloads or even MIRVing.

Although the speech made no mention of the U.S. (Chinese official media also made this point), however, it is hard not to read this through a diplomatic strategic lens. Yes, the timing of the parade and the U.S. elections is coincidental. Nonetheless, the challenge of North Korea’s steadily-increasing capability will now land on the desk of President Trump in a second term, or more likely with a Biden administration. Kim Jong-un tried to straddle a line, displaying a large new ICBM and at the same time repeatedly emphasizing the defensive nature of these new systems, perhaps to leave diplomatic doors open.

Yet even on that score, the effort to reassure about North Korean nuclear doctrine left ambiguity. While explicitly saying that North Korea foregoes pre-emption, the speech simultaneously noted that “if any forces infringe upon the security of our state and attempt to have recourse to military force against us, I will enlist all our most powerful offensive strength in advance to punish them.” Although nuclear war around the Korean peninsula remains a low probability, North Korean nuclear doctrine is the source of as much uncertainty as the weapons themselves.

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. 

Photo from Stefan Krasowki’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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What Woodward’s Book “Rage” Tells us about U.S.-Korea Relations

By Mark Tokola

At least in U.S. media outlets, the main Korea story to emerge from Bob Woodward’s new book “Rage” is the correspondence between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, which is characterized as faintly ridiculous.  I’ll set aside the question of whether Kim Jong-un’s letters read better in Korean, and particularly within North Korean rhetorical tradition.  The language of the letters may not be that extraordinary.  Perhaps odder are President Trump’s efforts to mirror the floridness of the language.

For President Trump to be impressed by being called “Excellency” also shows a remarkable lack of experience with reading diplomatic correspondence, in which it is a commonplace title not only for heads of government but for all ambassadors.  The more serious problem is that the letters have been made public.  Exposing letters between heads of governments may close off one form of confidential communication at a time when we need all the channels of communication we can get.

You get the impression, reading the whole book, that Woodward thought it a scoop to reveal how close the U.S. Government was to believing that we were to going to war with North Korea toward the end of 2017.  More than once, he shows Secretary of Defense Mattis going to the National Cathedral to meditate on the tragedy such a conflict would become.

It seems clear from Woodward’s interviews that the issue was not whether U.S. officials were considering attacking North Korea, but their deep concern that North Korea might attack the United States.  That did not seem fanciful at the time even from publicly available sources.  North Korea was producing videos of what an attack on New York or Washington, DC would look like.  North Korean media released a photo of Kim Jong-un studying a map showing missile tracks from North Korea leading into the United States.  North Korea not only asserted that it had the means of attacking the United States, it was open about its intent to do so if conditions warranted.  The general lack of current interest in that part of “Rage,” shows that it seems like a problem of the past—at least for now.

A third story in “Rage” is President Trump’s statements that he would withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea if he had the opportunity to do so.  That’s not a shocker, he’s said it publicly.  What the book makes clear however is that he says this privately as well as publicly.  It is therefore not just a negotiating stance to get South Korea to pay more in the current burden sharing negotiations.  He means it.  He would withdraw U.S. troops if he could.  All that has been in the way of his doing so is the consensus of the foreign policy and defense establishments, overwhelming Congressional sentiment, and strong American public support for the U.S.-ROK alliance.

Looking back over Donald Trump’s long life in the public eye, he’s changed his views on controversial issues such as gun control, abortion, and military interventions abroad.  There are however two issues on which he has had rock-solid consistency.  One is that trade with foreign countries is self-evidently unfair unless the United States is running a merchandise trade surplus.  The other is that the United States should not defend any foreign country unless it pays at least full cost.  He wrote an open letter to the New York Times on September 2, 1987, saying that Saudi Arabia and Japan should pay the United States “for the defense of their freedom.”  We can see from Woodward’s two books on the Trump Administration that if he wins a second term, we can expect him to push his core beliefs on trade and pay-as-you-go alliance relationships all the more vigorously.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

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

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Anti-Graft Proposal and Compulsory Military Service

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 main opposition People Power Party (PPP) intends to propose a revised bill that would forestall attempts to exercise undue influence in military service affairs.
  • This move comes amid allegations that the Justice Minister used her influence to help her son obtain special treatment during his military service.
  • In the revision, lawmakers call for stronger action against people who request illegal favors, regardless of whether or not those favors were accepted.

Implications: The proposed revision to the current anti-graft law reflects South Korea’s high sensitivity to issues related to compulsory military service. Rather than only punishing the illegal outcomes of influence peddling, the bill proposes to penalize attempted solicitations. By initiating this change, the main opposition party hopes to leverage the popular outrage to gain ground in the polls. Meanwhile, support for the Democratic Party and President Moon Jae-in has dropped significantly among men and the younger generation as a result of growing criticism surrounding the Justice Minister and her son.

Context: The government’s growing concern around the growing manpower deficit may be also shaping its more stringent posture on military service affairs. For instance, the Ministry of Culture, Sport, and Tourism decided not to exempt K-pop stars from military service – a difficult decision as this relinquishes both serious export revenue and soft power capital.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Sophie Joo, Sonia Kim, and Chris Lee.

Picture from the Republic of Korea Army account on Wikimedia Commons.

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More Bilateral U.S.-ROK Cooperation Needed in Cyber Policy

By Terrence Matsuo

One of the newest areas in national security is cyber policy. Policymakers in the United States and South Korea have outlined its importance and identified areas of concern such as North Korea’s cyber activities. But there remain important questions for the alliance to answer.

Both American and Korean strategy documents highlight the importance of cybersecurity to national defense. In the national security strategy released by the Trump administration in 2017, the U.S. government notes that “cyberspace offers states and non-state actors the ability to wage campaigns against American political, economic, and security interests without ever physically crossing our borders.” The administration adds that “cyberattacks have become a key feature of modern conflict,” in order for states to project influence and defend their interests.

Similarly, the most recent South Korean Ministry of National Defense white paper notes that “cyberattacks constitute another serious type of transnational threat.” It lists the WannaCry and NotPetya attacks of 2017, and attack on a Turkish cryptocurrency exchange in 2018 as examples of these kinds of incidents. “Many countries around the world are accelerating efforts to develop a strategy for responding to cyber-threats,” it observes.

Although the U.S. and South Korea share similar views of the threat posed by cyberattacks, there are certain ambiguities that must be addressed. In particular is the question of a North Korean cyberattack on either side, and what would be the appropriate response. “North Korea is a cyber superpower,” says Lt. Gen. Chun In-Bum, a retired member of the South Korean military. “North Korea’s ability and intent to harm and cripple the United States and South Korea should not be taken lightly.”

But although these policy documents identify the threat from North Korea, other documents need to be updated or clarified. Entering into force in 1953, it is not surprising that the mutual defense treaty that outlines the U.S.-ROK alliance offers little perspective on cybersecurity. Article III of the treaty says that an “armed attack” on territory under either American or Korean jurisdiction “would be dangerous to its own peace and safety,” and that both “would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.”

Experts have varying views on what kind of response was appropriate for a cyberattack from North Korea. Lt. Gen. Chun said that a response would be conditioned by the damage it inflicted. “If it is just a lot of money, I don’t see the Defense Treaty being invoked,” he said in an email. But he also said: “If a cyberattack causes loss of life that’s a different matter, especially if it is a lot of people.” Col. David Maxwell is a retired member of the U.S. military now working as an analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. During a livestreamed event held by KEI, he observed that “if you take down [the] infrastructure of Seoul, or New York City, or Washington, DC, you are going to create tremendous problems for the citizens in those countries.”

Other experts are pessimistic that the alliance would have a unified position, much less reaction. Joshua Stanton is an analyst of issues on the Korean Peninsula. In an email, he said that in the event of a North Korean cyberattack, “the government in Seoul would be paralyzed by doubt and hesitation, the alliance would be paralyzed by mutual distrust, and Washington would be paralyzed by Trump’s isolationist impulses, his broader antipathy toward South Korea, and his election-year interest in claiming a diplomatic success through his summits with Kim.”

Mr. Stanton warns: “In all likelihood…Kim probably calculates that there would be no response all. The implications for deterrence are obvious.”

Thus it is critical that American and Korean officials determine how the alliance will handle threats in the cyber domain. The foreign ministries of the U.S. and South Korea have held a series of meetings focused specifically on cyber policy issues. The first round of talks were held in 2012, between Song Bong-heon, Ambassador for International Security Affairs, and Christopher Painter, Coordinator for Cyber Issues. Citing South Korean officials, Yonhap reported at the time that the two officials discussed “ways to strengthen bilateral cooperation for protecting critical government infrastructure and enhancing online security.”

The talks have been held biannually since, with the most recent being in 2018. According to a readout from the State Department, Robert Strayer, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Cyber and International Communications and Information Policy met with Ambassador Moon Duk-ho, a successor to Ambassador Song. Both officials led delegations that included representatives from other ministries and agencies related to security and diplomacy from their respective governments. In addition to defending government infrastructure from cyberattacks, they also discussed capacity building, information sharing, and military-to-military cyber cooperation, in addition to other topics.

Unlike their diplomatic counterparts, there have been no meetings focused solely on issues in the cyber domain. But public statements do indicate there is an awareness on the need for greater cooperation in this area. The 51st US-ROK Security Consultative Meeting was held in November of last year and included American Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and South Korean Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong Doo. In a joint statement released after the meeting, both sides “committed to maintain close communication and coordination in the cyber domain, including sharing trends of cyber threats as well as corresponding policy changes in their respective nations and discussing common issues of interest.”

In some instances the U.S. has clarified its obligations under alliance treaties with regards to a cyberattack. Bruce Klingner, an analyst for the Heritage Foundation, points to the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Meeting of 2019 as being one example. Secretary of State Pompeo and Acting Secretary of Defense Shanahan met with Minister for Foreign Affairs Kono, and Minister of Defense Iwaya in Washington. A joint statement released after the meeting said: “The Ministers affirmed that international law applies in cyberspace and that a cyberattack could, in certain circumstances, constitute an armed attack for the purposes of Article V of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.”

It is not clear if or when American and Korean officials will meet to discuss these issues. The negotiations over burdensharing, and the coronavirus pandemic have weighed heavily on both bilateral relations and international meetings in general. However, experts are optimistic that talks are likely to be held despite these pressures. Mr. Klingner said that the U.S.-ROK Security Consultative Meeting is usually held in the fall, and Col. Maxwell said that a meeting could be held virtually, as many other international summits are held this year.

As cybersecurity remains an unexplored topic for policymakers in both the U.S. and South Korea, further discussions between both governments is imperative. According to Jenny Town, the Deputy Director of 38 North, the public record clearly demonstrates that Pyongyang is looking to use cyber operations to further its national interest, whether it’s electronic robbery or for intelligence gathering. “North Korea’s cyber capabilities have really improved in recent years, and their confidence seems to be growing as well,” she said.

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.

Image from Markus Spiske’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


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Shots Fired Across the DMZ—What Does It Mean?

By Robert R. King 

Last Sunday morning (May 2), multiple gunshots were fired across the border from the North Korean side, striking a South Korean guard post inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ).  Consistent with established procedures, South Korean soldiers fired two ten-round volleys in response.  Military officials from the South sent a notice to the North by the inter-Korean communication link calling for an explanation while seeking to prevent the incident from escalating.  The message, however, was sent two hours after the first shorts were fired.  South Korean soldiers identified four bullet marks on the exterior wall of the guard post.  South Korean news agency reports and newspapers said it was unknown if there was any damage in the North, though South Korean shots were not aimed to cause damage or death, just respond.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview with ABC News that same Sunday morning that the shots were “accidental,” although South Korean soldiers did return fire.  “So far as we can tell, there was no loss of life on either side,” he said.  South Korean officials expressed the view that the firing of shots by the North was “unlikely to have been a deliberate provocation.”

The day after the exchange, the United Nations Command said it would send a team to the DMZ to investigate whether the North Korean shots were a violation of the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War in 1953, although the armed exchange did not cause injury or damage.  In a message to North Korea, South Korean officials protested the gunshots as a violation of the armistice.

The North has not responded to the South Korean concerns that were raised via the hot line, and North Korean media have ignored shots being fired in the DMZ.  The story was quickly lost in the midst of headlines about the reappearance of Kim Jong-un, who had not attended any public events for three weeks, including his failure to attend the most important North Korean national celebration on the anniversary of the birth of his grandfather Kim Il-sung.

The North-South border extends 160 miles from coast to coast, and it has been described as one of the most heavily fortified and guarded borders in the world.  In September 2018, in line with improvement in North-South relations following summits between the leaders of the two Koreas, both sides have made an effort to ease tensions along the border.  They announced the goal of removing all guard posts within the DMZ.

Some 60 such guard posts stretch along the South Korean side and a similar number are on the North.  The two leaders agreed to begin easing tensions by each removing 11 guard posts.  In November 2018, both countries announced that they had withdrawn troops and military equipment from 22 “frontline” guard posts and the buildings were then dismantled.  Military officials from both countries visited and verified that the guard posts that they had agreed to remove were gone.  This first phase seemed to go as planned, but there has been little further information about continuing efforts to dismantle guard posts in the DMZ.

Such border incidents along the North-South land border have been infrequent in recent years.  Two-and-a-half years ago there were two incidents, each one involving a single individual.  In December 2017, a North Korean soldier defected across the border from the North in heavy fog.  The South Korean military fired twenty warning shots, apparently to discourage soldiers on the North side from crossing the border to retrieve the fleeing soldier.  Troops from the North responded by firing a few shots some forty minutes later.  The previous month, in November 2017, a soldier from the North fled across the border, and he was shot multiple times and seriously injured by his fellow North Korean soldiers seeking to stop him from defecting.  The South Koreans nursed him back to health.  These were not cases of North and South engaging each other, but cases involving the North trying to prevent its own soldiers from defecting.

In August of 2015, North Korean soldiers were accused of slipping into the South side of the DMZ where they planted landmines near a South Korean guard post.  Two soldiers were seriously injured when they inadvertently triggered the landmines.  At that time planting landmines was a serious concern because it had been nearly five decades since North and South had used such devices, and they had been particularly devastating in the late 1960s.

Although such incidents at the border are infrequent, officers on both sides of the DMZ take seriously any shots fired across the demarcation line.  In the late 1960s border incidents were much more frequent and far more dangerous.  Lee Jin-sam, a current member of the National Assembly and a former South Korean army general, was involved in border activities in the 1960s and 1970s.  In a series of interviews Lee provided information about some of the incidents in which he was involved.

North Korean commandos reportedly infiltrated into the South 57 times in 1966 and 118 times in 1967.  The most dramatic of those incidents was the North Korean attack against the Blue House, the South Korean presidential residence, in January 1968 in an effort to assassinate President Park Chung-hee.  That infiltration raid was foiled, but only at the last minute, and the effort cost the lives of 26 South Koreans, 4 Americans, as well as 29 North Korean troops who had infiltrated.  The South Korean military apparently also was involved in retaliatory strikes against the North, with a number of cross border raids that resulted in a significant number of deaths, and Lee provided information about these.

As part of an effort to minimize the deadly consequences of misunderstanding and improve North-South communication, a “hot line” was established between North and South in the early 1970s.  This has now become a series of some telephone lines for various levels of communication between North and South.  These lines all run thorough the border at Panmunjom.  This hotline network is checked twice daily, but it is also used for North-South communication on issues such as the border firing incident that took place earlier this week.  A “hot line” connection was set up between the offices of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and leader Kim Jong-un shortly before the two met in person at their summit on April 27, 2018.  Lines were also opened between military and intelligence officials of the North and the South.

The incident this week is a reminder of the difficulties that have plagued North-South relations for the seven-and-a-half decades since the end of World War II.  Despite the effort made by President Moon Jae-in to strengthen and improve ties with the North, forward progress has been slow and unsteady.  Certainly things are far better than they were following the Korean War and the dark period of violent provocations in the late 1960s.

At the same time, as the firing of shots on the border this week emphasizes, a nervous finger still rests on the hair trigger.  The considerable international media attention that was given to the firing of a few shots on the inter-Korean border at this time when world attention is focused on the devastating international Covid-19 pandemic is a reminder that North Korea still has the potential to disrupt, disorder and upset the international order.


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.

Photo from Konrad Karlsson’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Strait of Hormuz and South Korea’s “Balanced Diplomacy”

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

Implications: The South Korean government’s decision to dispatch troops to the Strait of Hormuz exemplifies South Korean idea of “balanced” diplomacy – accommodating different demands of surrounding powers while also avoiding any direct conflicts. South Korea partially conformed to the American request by expanding the Cheonghae Unit’s operational zone, but minimizing the risk of directly provoking Iran by not joining the IMSC.

The government also bypassed the difficulty of getting domestic approval for overseas troop deployment by framing it as an “extension” of the existing operation, rather than commencing a new mission. According to the law, the government needs parliamentary approval for overseas troop deployment. However, such consent is unnecessary for expanding the operation zone of a deployed unit.

Context: South Korea has managed to achieve a relatively successful balancing act between the demands of its most important ally and a potentially important future trade partner. South Korea was the 4th largest exporter to Iran in 2011. After the conclusion of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Korean exports to Iran grew from $6.1 billion to $12 billion in 2017. South Korea also imported approximately 230,000 barrels per day from Iran in 2011. The reimposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran in 2018 suspended this deep commercial relationship, but Seoul likely hopes for a speedy resolution of the tensions and the lifting of sanctions to reengage the growing consumer market in Iran.

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

Image originally appeared on a Korea Herald article from March 12, 2019

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10 Issues to Watch for on the Korean Peninsula in 2020

By Kyle Ferrier, Sang Kim, Yong Kwon, and Troy Stangarone

After the U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore, 2019 was supposed to be the year that the United States and North Korea worked out a deal to begin dismantling its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. It was not to be. The talks fell apart at the Hanoi summit, dashing hopes for increased inter-Korean cooperation, and the process never got back on track.

The breakdown of U.S.-North Korea talks, however, wasn’t the only major relationship to face trouble in 2019. South Korea’s relations with Japan hit a low point as Tokyo surprised everyone by placing national security restrictions on three key chemicals for the production of semiconductors, threatening South Korea’s most important export industry.

South Korea’s economy also took a hit. The trade tensions with Japan, in combination with the U.S.-China trade war, already slowing exports of semiconductors, and slowing global growth, resulted in South Korea’s lowest level of GDP growth since the Global Financial Crisis.

As we look forward to the rest of 2020, there will be significant focus on developments with North Korea and South Korea’s relationship with Japan. Political change could be in the offing as well, as elections are set for the National Assembly and the presidency in the United States. But domestic issues dealing with the elderly and South Korea’s declining fertility rate will also be in focus.

With that in mind, here are 10 issues related to North Korea, South Korean politics, and U.S.-Korea relations to follow that will have an impact on the Korean peninsula in the year to come:

Efforts to Denuclearize North Korea

Despite realizing the first ever U.S.-North Korea summit meeting in 2018, talks between the United States and North Korea largely came to a halt last year. The question for 2019 is what comes next in U.S.-North Korea relations. With Pyongyang announcing that it no longer feels bound by its prior pledges not to conduct nuclear weapons or ballistic missile tests, there are concerns that the Korean Peninsula may return to the “fire and fury” period of 2017.  Alternatively, North Korea could attempt to return to talks with the United States and to strike a deal prior to the 2020 presidential election. However, the North Korean leadership likely recognize that any attempts to negotiate deal could be undone by a change in administrations in the United States.

More likely, North Korea will continue to increase its stockpile of weapons and engage in efforts to advance its weapons technology, while avoiding the types of tests that might force the international community to tighten the sanctions on its economy. In the absence of a provocative test by North Korea, another issue to watch will be how well the sanctions regime will hold. Russia and China have already signaled that they may have a waning patience for sanctions.

Reaching an Agreement on U.S.-Korea Military Burden Sharing

Contentious negotiations between Seoul and Washington on a new Special Measures Agreement (SMA) – determining how much South Korea contributes to hosting U.S. military forces – have unsurprisingly lapsed their December 31 deadline. The Trump administration’s call for Seoul to increase its 1.02 trillion won contribution by 400% caused a stir among South Koreans in the second half of last year. The sheer size of the proposed jump seemed to suggest that the U.S. underappreciated their country’s support for the alliance and led many to question the nature of the relationship. Talks are set to resume this month, but it’s unclear in what direction they are heading. In late December the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported Washington’s asking price had dropped to only a 10-20% increase, which U.S. officials later denied.

The conditions of a new SMA could have significant implications for the alliance, though there are still many unanswered questions. Other than the amount, the other significant aspect to follow is duration. If the U.S. again pushes for a one-year deal – rather than the multi-year agreements that both sides usually agreed to prior to the Trump administration – it could be a big gamble for South Korea given the U.S. presidential election in November. Since Trump himself is by all accounts driving the U.S. position, if he were to lose his re-election campaign then his Democratic opponent would be much less likely to pursue such a hardline stance. However, should Seoul and Washington strike a one-year deal and Trump wins in November, the new SMA talks could be even more of a challenge to the alliance than they have been recently.

Revitalizing the South Korean Economy

The South Korean economy is in the doldrums. GDP is expected to have only grown by 2 percent last year, the lowest since the wake of the global financial crisis in 2009. Even if the government were to hit its 2.4 percent growth target – which many see as too ambitious – it would mark the first time since at least 1954 that the country recorded back-to-back years of lower than 2.5 percent growth.

Getting the economy back on track is among President Moon’s highest priorities for this year. Though the administration’s “income-led” growth policies have produced limited results so far, the Blue House will amplify its efforts this year with new plans for infrastructure, job creation, and social spending. But, the question still remains whether these initiatives will be enough to reinvigorate the economy. Moon’s detractors continue to argue his policies still don’t do enough to account for business interests and are therefore destined to fail. What will likely have a much greater impact on the direction of the South Korean economy this year, however, are major developments abroad. Increased demand for semiconductors and a resolution between Beijing and Washington on trade issues could be a boon for the economy, just as much as further uncertainty could act as a drag.

The Course of South Korea’s Relations with Japan

Last year saw relations between South Korea and Japan hit one of their lowest points since the normalization of relations in 1965. In response to a South Korean Supreme Court’s decision in 2018 that Japanese companies were liable for their use of forced labor during the Second World War, Japan decided in July to place national security restrictions on three key chemicals for the production of semiconductors and later to remove South Korea from its “white list” of trusted exported partners. South Korea responded by removing Japan from its “white list” of trading partners and announcing that it would not renew its military intelligence sharing agreement with Japan – though that has been delayed for the moment.  Despite lower level meetings and a meeting between President Moon and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in late December, South Korea and Japan have been unable to resolve their disputes. The question for 2020 is whether the two sides will be able to find a resolution to their economic and historical disputes that would allow them to improve relations, or whether this could become the new normal.

Can 5G Help Improve the Prospects of South Korea’s Semiconductor Industry?

With Samsung and SK Hynix two of the world’s dominant producers of memory chips, along with the U.S. based Micron, South Korea was well placed to take advantage of the growing demand for memory chips in recent years. In 2017 and 2018, a surge in demand in the semiconductor industry helped to turn memory chips into South Korea’s top export item, accounting for nearly 14 percent of exports in 2018 and up from just 5 percent in 2014. However, the super cycle began coming to an end in the second half of 2018 and sales continued to decline throughout 2019.  The prospects of recovery have been clouded over the last year by Japan’s new export restrictions and the U.S.-China trade war. They have also been hindered by the slower rollout of 5G around the world due to U.S. efforts to convince countries not to use Huawei for their 5G infrastructure. However, there is hope that as 5G comes online in more markets demand for new 5G capable phones, along with the continued growth in data centers, will help to boost the prospects for South Korea’s most important industry.

How the U.S. Presidential Elections Could Impact Policy

Although taking place outside the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. presidential election in November will have a significant impact on the Korean Peninsula. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 brought about a significant shift in how the United States manages its alliances with countries such as South Korea and its policy towards North Korea. The shape of U.S. policy on issues related to burden sharing, trade, and North Korea will likely all depend on whether Trump is able to win reelection. Those policies could all shift if the Democratic nominee or another Republican were to win the White House in 2020 if Trump were removed from office.

Legislative Election in April will likely Shape the Platforms and Outlook of Korea’s Major Parties

In addition to the U.S. presidential election in November, South Korea will hold a critical election in April for all 300 seats in the country’s unicameral legislature. This election will serve as a litmus test for the public’s confidence in the incumbent administration’s direction and determine President Moon Jae-in’s ability to advance policies during his remaining time in office. Taking a broader view, the election is historic because new faces representing new constituents will take their seats in the next legislative session. The National Assembly’s recent decision to lower the voting age from 19 to 18 will bring 530,000 potential new constituents to the polling booth in April. It is unclear yet how this will impact support for either conservative or progressive parties – but this will no doubt impact the platforms of respective parties looking to win the support of this new cohort. This perhaps partly influenced the leading parties’ decision to retire prominent legislators who had long been the face of the political establishment. Examples include former ruling party legislator and presidential chief of staff Im Jong-Seok and former opposition leader Kim Moo-sung. The upcoming general election, therefore, acts as a beginning of a new period for the increasingly assertive National Assembly.

Can South Korea Improve Its Fertility Rate

South Korea faces a demographic crisis. South Koreans are living longer and South Koreans born a decade from now are expected to have among the longest lifespans of any group of people in the world. However, the question facing South Korea is how many children will be born when the country attains this public health success? In 2018, South Korea had a total fertility rate of 0.98, a historic low, and the final data for 2019 is expected to be even lower. Through September of last year, births were down 8.9 percent from 2018. It will take time and significant social change to return to anything close to the number of births that would allow Korea to reach the replacement rate of 2.1, but the key to watch in 2020 is whether South Korea is able to introduce measures to reverse the current trend and return to a total fertility rate of at least 1.0. The odds are likely stacked against it.

Will the Government Comprehensibly Tackle Elderly Poverty?

President Moon Jae-in pledged to improve the social safety net upon his election in 2017. Since then, the South Korean government’s efforts to assist underemployed youths, curb the financial burdens of childcare, and raise the minimum wage have received the most attention from economists and the media. This can be attributed to the expectation that these policies will have the most impact on South Korea’s human capital resources and industrial productivity in the years ahead.

However, the country’s biggest social welfare crisis is elderly poverty. 2017 data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) revealed that 43.8 percent of South Koreans over the age of 65 live in relative poverty (defined as earning 50 percent or less of median household income) – well above the average of 12.5 percent for OECD member countries. This is more than any other country in the 34-country community. While the government does distribute a basic pension to elderly who are in the bottom quintile of income earners, the policy (covering around 35 percent of seniors) provides an insufficient amount to those who qualify and leaves those who do not qualify in a precarious economic position.

Moreover, with the future tax base falling alongside declining birth rates, the National Assembly Budget Office noted that reserves of the National Pension Service will reach zero in 2054.

In response to the crisis, President Moon has pledged to increase the basic pension by nearly 50 percent and double the number of job openings for older workers. However, the challenge is not simply a financial one – reports suggest that many elderly also suffer from loneliness and associated mental health issues. This has manifested in several social challenges, including growing crime rate among elderly and the highest elderly suicide rate among OECD countries. Therefore, resolving the elderly poverty crisis will require a more in-depth solution that incorporates community participation and increased public funding.

How YouTube Shapes Media Consumption in South Korea

In 2019, South Koreans spent more time on YouTube than any other mobile apps.  South Koreans teens spent an average of 42 hours a month watching YouTube videos and people in 20s spent about 31 hours. It is also interesting that people in the 50s and above watch a significant amount of YouTube videos with an average of 20 hours a month, more than people in the 30s and 40s. The number of South Korean smartphone users also hit a record high in 2019, now over 91% of the population own smartphones. People now have instant access to content whenever and wherever compared to traditional cable TVs.

So what are they watching? There is a wide variety of content available for any audience across the age range, from mukbang, music videos, product reviews, kids channel, lectures, cooking, to politics and news. YouTube is not only a source of entertainment but increasingly becoming a resource for self-learning and information. It also became an attractive space where people can create their own content to share with others and even make a profits. Because of the popularity and influence of YouTube, being a YouTube creator made it to the topic 3  dream jobs for South Korean elementary schoolers, followed by athletes and teachers.

Given the wide accessibility and popularity, creating a YouTube channel has been a trending communication strategy for companies and even government agencies to send their message and expand their audience. In 2020, YouTube will continue to influence and impact how South Koreans consume online content and we will see more media content tailored toward YouTube users.

Kyle Ferrier is Fellow and Director of Academic Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America, Sang Kim is the Director of Public Affairs and Intern Coordinator, Yong Kwon is the Director of Communications, and Troy Stangarone Senior Director and Fellow. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

Image created by Juni Kim Senior Manager for Operations and Technology at the Korea Economic Institute of America. Image photos from the flickr Creative Commons photostreams of The White House, the Republic of Korea, and the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

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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.