Tag Archive | "nuclear weapons"

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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John Bolton on the Summits 1: Singapore

By Stephan Haggard

Whatever we think of John Bolton’s motives or policy approach, The Room Where It Happened provides detail to our understanding of the Singapore (Ch. 4) and Hanoi (Ch. 11) summits. Bolton starts with an interesting claim about the very origins of the first meeting between Kim and Trump. Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s Director of National Security, appeared to only be carrying a message from Kim Jong-un when he proposed the summit idea to Trump in his Oval Office visit in March 2018. Bolton claims, however, that the very idea of issuing the invitation had actually come from the South Korean side (p. 78 and fn. 3, p. 503).

Chung repeatedly tried to assure a deeply-skeptical Bolton that President Moon had been pushing for a public North Korean commitment to “complete verifiable and irreversible denuclearization,” Bolton’s favored language dating to his time in the Bush administration. Although Chung claimed that Kim Jong-un had “seemed amenable,” North Korea had no interest in making commitments to Moon on the nuclear front, using that channel to develop North-South relations and drive wedges between Washington and Seoul. The Panmunjom declaration does little more than characterize denuclearization as a common goal, and pats Pyongyang on the back for what it had already done on the issue (such as the media stunt at Punggye-ri):

“The two sides confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

The two sides shared the view that the measures being initiated by the north side are very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and agreed to fulfill their respective responsibility and role.”

As we will see, however, that language actually anticipates the Singapore outcome to a surprising extent.

The central theme of Bolton’s analysis of Singapore is simple: that Trump’s eagerness permitted Kim Jong-un to structure the summit outcome to his advantage. The only substantive issue effectively resolved by the leaders’ meeting itself was the concession Kim Jong-un sought on exercises (p. 110), which played perfectly on Trump’s skepticism about the alliances.

But the real action—or inaction to be more precise–was occurring at the working level talks at Panmunjom. Summits do not typically resolve issues; rather, leaders present what has already been negotiated by the sherpas. Although Bolton expresses his animus toward the State Department negotiators, whom he saw as soft, it was precisely at this level that the North Koreans proved most masterful. The risk of North Korean stonewalling was that if absolutely nothing happened in the working level talks, political pressure would mount for Trump to cancel, or at least postpone, the summit. Bolton details several such near-death cycles (for example, around Choe Son-hui’s attack on the Vice President); as he admits openly, each raised his hopes. However as the President was meeting with Kim Yong-chol as late as June 1—crowing about the meeting and the letter from Kim Jong-un—North Korean negotiators at the DMZ were rejecting the draft U.S. approach at the Panmunjom negotiations. By this time, Trump was already openly stating that Singapore would be little more than a photo-op, the beginning of a “process” that would involve incremental steps. This outcome was precisely what hawks like Bolton feared.

As we now know, the outcome was worse than Bolton either feared or even admits in The Room Where It Happened. Despite Bolton’s attention to detail throughout the book, there is barely a mention of the summit statement itself and certainly no sustained analysis of it. Yet as I have detailed elsewhere, the joint statement contained pretty much everything North Korea could have wanted, starting with a weak and ambiguous commitment to denuclearization (“…reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panumunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”). More significant was the priority given to improving bilateral relations and working toward a peace regime ahead of denuclearization, and above all the step-by-step approach that was implicit as a result.

Bolton also is largely silent about the biggest shock of the summit, which came in President Trump’s press conference following the leaders’ meeting. The president not only promised to pause exercises but described them as provocative, costly and unnecessary. He even suggested that U.S. troops might even be withdrawn altogether. What more could Kim Jong-un ask for?

In fact, the problem with the summit was not in accepting the inevitability of some kind of step-by-step process. Bolton is misguided in thinking that the United States could hold out for a deal in which complete denuclearization would be achieved absent any concessions. Why would the North Koreans commit to a negotiation of that sort? The problem with the summit was the complete dissipation of leverage once it had been wrapped up. Bolton is completely right that the United States needed to get something concrete beyond a freeze, and that a baseline declaration of their capabilities was a reasonable place to start; how can you have negotiations if there is no agreement about what is even up for discussion? (p. 117). Yet Trump’s misguided belief that he and Kim could resolve things at the leaders’ meeting meant inadequate focus on progress in the working level talks.

In early July, Pompeo was learning that the North had walked out of Singapore with a very different picture of what had occurred; Pyongyang was in no mood for concessions (p. 117-118). In five hours of negotiation with Kim Yong-chol, Pompeo got precisely nothing. Trump was effectively forced to cancel a second Pompeo trip when told that he would not meet with Kim Jong-un (which he had failed to do in the July meeting as well).

At the same time, Kim Jong-un continued to ply President Trump with love letters, dangling the prospect of another summit (which Moon Jae-in also urged), while insisting that the U.S. come up with new proposals. Bolton closes the chapter on Singapore with a surprisingly blunt assessment of how the bar had been lowered in the second half of 2018: “But we had at least survived past the November congressional elections without any major disasters and could now face the next round of Trump enthusiasm to meet with Kim Jong Un.”

In the next post, a discussion of Bolton’s chapter on Hanoi. A review of Bolton’s Surrender is Not an Option can be found here.

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 Wikimedia Commons.

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North Korea: Time for a Different Approach?

By Mark Tokola

It seems unlikely that there will be any diplomatic breakthroughs with North Korea during the remainder of 2020 unless Kim Jong-un unexpectedly launches a major initiative involving tangible concessions.  Donald Trump has little to gain from another summit unless it achieved something dramatic and concrete.  Kim Jong-un would be wary of any new deal with the Trump Administration, not knowing whether it would be honored by a potential Biden Administration.  At the same time, the prospect of returning to a pre-2016 policy of isolation and ‘maximum pressure’ towards North Korea is enervating.  The current pause in diplomacy might be a good time to think through alternatives.  None of the previous approaches over past decades have worked, but not every approach has been tried.  Here are three different possibilities:

Change the Channel

The current negotiating framework of denuclearization in exchange for sanctions relief may be too narrow to succeed.  A fundamental problem with denuclearization is verification.  North Korea has always been reluctant to agree to meaningful verification, and the U.S. has been unwilling to lift sanctions until North Korean concessions appear more permanent and principled than they have been in the past.  There is also no reason to assume that a little denuclearization in exchange for a little sanctions relief necessarily would lead to next steps. It could just as easily lead to accusations of cheating and bad faith.

The denuclearization of North Korea should remain the primary objective for the United States and South Korea, but it might have to be a long-term or even multi-generational objective.  North Korea has long stated that its own eventual objective is denuclearization.  There is no reason for the United State or South Korea to state that North Korea has a right to nuclear arms in violation of the NPT.  It might be pragmatic, however, to admit that it might take a very long time for North Korea to give them up.  It would be best to continue to hold denuclearization out as a long-term, mutually agreed goal, even if it is not tightly defined.  We might even get there eventually but not if we give up on it.

In the meantime, it should be possible to change the channel and take up other worthwhile negotiations with North Korea.  Conventional arms controls could be stabilizing and mutually beneficial.  The main risk of war is not a nuclear exchange, it is the outbreak of a conventional conflict, perhaps endangering Seoul.  An imaginable negotiation might involve, for example, a withdrawal of North Korea artillery and short-range missiles to a further distance from Seoul in exchange for a reduction in air forces in South Korea.  (This was essentially one of the deals struck in arms control talks between NATO and the Warsaw Pact: a pulling back of Soviet tanks in exchange for a restriction on NATO helicopters.)  Conventional arms talks could focus on the systems considered most threatening to each side rather than a cap on the numbers of similar weapons.  The two militaries are too different to make that approach fruitful.

Another subject for negotiation might involve persuading North Korea to sign the international Chemical Weapons Convention.  That would not be a big ask.  North Korea is one of only four countries in the world not to have signed the CWC.  The others are Egypt, Israel, and South Sudan.  Apart from reducing the risk of use of chemical weapons, membership in the CWC entails submitting to a light verification regime.  Many countries that are allergic to verification systems have been prepared to sign the Convention.  It would be a modest step on North Korea’s part to acknowledge the principle of verification.  What could be offered in exchange?  Perhaps something specific such as improving North Korea’s peaceful chemical production.  Perhaps something more general by way of sanctions relief or recognition in other international bodies.

Invite Friends

Sooner or later, countries beyond South Korea, North Korea and the United States will have to be involved in talks regarding the future of the peninsula.  If there is a risk of ‘complicating’ the talks, it is not as if keeping it in tight bilateral channels has been all that productive.  And, without the tacit or open support of China, Japan, and perhaps Russia, for an eventual deal, it will be difficult to persuade North Korea that it has achieved a minimum level of security guarantees.

Chinese representatives have said that China is prepared to remain on the sidelines for bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea, and between North Korea and South Korea, but it will insist on having a presence at any trilateral negotiations among the United States, North Korea, and South Korea.  That doesn’t mean the three parties would be compelled to invite China, but it presents the possibility that China might try to sabotage any agreement reached among the three.  Given the growing friction between China and the United States, however, attempting four-party talks might be imprudent for the time being.  In any case, there is no reason to assume that North Korea would want China involved.  Reportedly, both North Korean and South Korean negotiators at the Six-Party Talks sometimes felt that China and the United States were talking over their heads.  There is little current enthusiasm for resurrecting the four or six-party talks formats, although the interests of the six (South Korea, North Korea, United States, China, Russia, and Japan) countries will need to be accommodated at some point.

There are, however, other parties who might be able to facilitate talks.  Inviting friends might take the edge off mutual suspicions and deep-rooted antagonisms between the United States and North Korea.  In the case of conventional arms talks, a neutral, expert, non-government organization such as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) or the Netherlands’ Clingendael Institute might be able to provide a technical and objective element to the discussions.  For broader talks, the involvement of the United Nations Secretary General’s office might be appropriate for discussing sanctions relief and international assistance to North Korea.  As a potential financial contributor and guarantor of the outcome of negotiations, the European Union might be a constructive participant in talks.  Although some EU member states fought on the side of the UN Command during the Korean War, the EU itself, which includes former Eastern Bloc and neutral states, could be portrayed as an honest broker.

Go Public

A third novel approach towards diplomacy with North Korea might be for the United States and South Korea to make a specific offer to North Korea, and to make it publicly.  The offer should be plausible; relatively detailed; and should offer concrete, economic inducements to North Korea—not intangibles such as an “end of war declaration,” normalization of relations, or vague security guarantees.  North Korea primarily is concerned by the parlous state of its economy.  The U.S.-ROK offer should propose fast-acting relief.  That does not necessarily mean the easing of sanctions, which may be too slow and uncertain to have much short-term effect.  Worrying too much about whether the regime might divert funds to its nuclear or cyber capabilities would make almost any form of economic assistance impossible.  Economic assistance is almost by definition fungible.  It should be possible to craft an offer of assistance in a way that would involve some, but not too much, conditionality.

Apart from the possibility of success, there are advantages to the United States and South Korea making a joint, public offer to North Korea.  It would show the international community that the two countries are making an effort.  It would put Kim Jong-un on the spot to either accept or reject a proposal that would improve the lives of his people.  And, it would demonstrate that the United States and South Korea are on the same page at a time when that is being questioned.

There is no guarantee that a new approach towards North Korea would work, but if the worst outcome is that North Korea rejects a new approach, the onus would be on them.

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

Photo from coolloud’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Report on the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee Part 1: The Belated Christmas Gift

By Stephan Haggard

In lieu of a New Year’s speech, Kim Jong -un convened an unusual plenum of the Central Committee in December, issuing a widely-distributed Report on the meeting in its stead. What was said—and what it augurs for 2020—are considered in two parts: the bargaining with the United States, which has gotten most attention, and the economic messages—taken up tomorrow–which are equally if not more important.

The Plenums of the last two years—which appear to be augmented with personnel well beyond the Central Committee narrowly conceived–have been consequential. The April 2018 party plenary came at the beginning of the summit era, and carried a message—however equivocal—of a willingness to talk. The April 2019 plenum, by contrast, followed on the failure in Hanoi and was decidedly darker in tone. It set in train the sustained limbo—broken briefly by the handshake at the border and the Stockholm meetings–that characterized U.S.-DPRK relations for most of 2019.

Plenums are designed to outline broad policy lines that pertain to both external and internal affairs. There can be little doubt, however—given the year-end deadline given by Kim Jong-un for progress on negotiations with the U.S.—that this one was sending a foreign policy message. See it as the “Christmas gift” that Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Ri Tae Song promised in early December.

Coming early in the work report is a long passage on the technological advances made in the country’s weapons programs, an admission—were one needed—that the regime has not been standing still. In addition to the 19 short-range missile tests, tests the Trump administration has largely shrugged off, other development activities have clearly not abated. The core message: time is not in fact on the side of the United States.

What capabilities, exactly? Two are of most central strategic significance. The first is reflected in the highly public engine test at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground, a facility that Trump personally claimed Kim Jong-un had promised to destroy. The test is a reminder that the regime has multiple programs aimed at a credible inter-continental capability, and these have continued despite the self-declared moratorium on long-range missile tests.

The second message is that the regime remains set on securing a second-strike capability, and thus a more assured deterrent against any possible U.S. military action (however low a probability it may seem to us). The report makes mention of the fact that the U.S. maintains a preventive option, claiming disingenuously that the U.S. sees North Korea as a “target of its preemptive nuclear strike.”  This capability has been signaled through tests showing more competence with solid fuel rocketry, a long-standing objective. Solid-fuel shortens launch times, and thus increases mobility. A submarine-launched capability serves the same purpose; tests related to such a capability were undertaken just in advance of Stockholm. Even if it would seem that an SLBM capability was pretty far off, we have made that miscalculation about North Korean engineering capabilities before.

The report’s analysis of the current state of diplomatic play is virtually a mirror image of the analysis of North Korean behavior in the U.S.: that North Korean dickering is simply a pretext for developing capabilities that will get harder and harder to shut down. The North Korean interpretation, by contrast, is that the U.S. is playing the same game, “wasting time away under the signboard of dialogue and negotiations,” while at the same time keeping the sanctions regime in place.

The United States has downsized, downplayed and even canceled exercises. This has not been enough for Pyongyang, which continues to treat any drills and the shipment of “ultra-modern warfare equipment” as signs of bad faith. Yet it is also noteworthy that the report makes particular mention of the “more than ten independent sanctions measures” the U.S. has undertaken outside of the UNSC framework, a reference to secondary sanctions Treasury has imposed to reduce leakage.

The report boasts that “the world will witness a new strategic weapon to be possessed by the DPRK in the near future”; I leave speculation on what that might be to others, but given the multiple missile programs the regime is juggling simultaneously, Pyongyang’s options are surprisingly wide. The result is that bargaining is about to shift from the conference table (such as it was) to an end to the moratorium, a resumption of testing and whatever conciliatory or escalatory measures the Trump administration chooses to make.

Despite these threats, the report also leaves open a diplomatic crack. While the regime will “reliably put on constant alert the powerful nuclear deterrent capable of containing the nuclear threats from the U.S.,” it also notes that “the scope and depth of bolstering our deterrent will be properly coordinated depending on the U.S. future attitude to the DPRK.” Military threats are never distinct from diplomatic objectives; they are a complement to them. The objective: to force concessions from the United States as a precondition for a resumption of talks at any level.

To assess North Korea’s bargaining position, however, we need to consider the economic landscape. That landscape necessarily takes us into where China stands on the current state-of-play; I address that issue tomorrow.

Stephan Haggard is the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, Director of the Korea-Pacific Program and distinguished professor of political science at the University of California – San Diego.  The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from the Kremlin’s website.

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What to Read in Choe Son-hui’s News Conference

By Yonho Kim

North Korea threatened to suspend denuclearization talks with the United States about two weeks after the Hanoi summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un failed. North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui at a news conference in Pyongyang said that Kim was considering discontinuing the 15 month-long moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, citing “the gangster-like stand of the U.S.” Choe also made it clear that North Korea did not intend to make any compromise on the denuclearization deal. Choe’s remarks reinforced pessimistic prospects of the engagement process with the North among the Korea watchers although there is a suspicion that Choe’s warnings are part of Pyongyang’s typical playbook in an effort to win leverage before resuming talks. Before jumping to a conclusion on Pyongyang’s intention, we have to take a closer look at North Korea’s message control toward the outside world and the fact that she has emerged as the spokesperson dealing with foreign media on the denuclearization negotiations.

While harshly criticizing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton for creating an “atmosphere of hostility and mistrust” at the summit in Hanoi last month, Choe emphasized that the chemistry between Trump and Kim is “mysteriously wonderful.” Obviously, Pyongyang sent a strong signal that it still relies on the personal ties between the two leaders, leaving door open for resuming top-down negotiations. Choe even said that Kim traveled all the way to Hanoi to build trust with Trump despite the military being opposed to the idea of giving up the nuclear program.

Secretary Pompeo quickly picked up the underlying message from Choe and tried to avoid rhetorical escalation. He dismissed Choe’s characterizing U.S. position on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula as ‘gangster-like’ and pointed to professional conversations he had with the North Koreans following rhetorical attack on him last year. National Security Advisor Bolton, a longtime hawk on North Korea, complained that Choe’s remarks on his role at the Hanoi summit was “inaccurate,” but stopped short of saying she told a lie. For the moment it seems neither side wants to see the engagement process collapse.

It is notable that after the failed Hanoi summit North Korea chose the format of news conference by top Foreign Ministry officials to clarify their positions and make complaints about the U.S. “eccentric” negotiation patterns. Right after the summit, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho and Choe held a news conference in Hanoi and it was noted by a senior State Department official as an encouraging sign and a rare opportunity for the foreign media to have an open exchange with the North. Pyongyang used to demonstrate its dissatisfaction with the U.S. through official statements by state agencies or state media. Interestingly enough, it was Choe who announced her statement through the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) last May before the Singapore summit. In the statement she threatened to cancel the planned summit, denouncing Vice President Mike Pence as a ‘political dummy’ for demanding complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID).

But this time, at least until the time of this writing, North Korean state media has not reported anything about Ri and Choe’s Hanoi and Choe’s Pyongyang news conferences. To the outside world, Pyongyang kept blaming the U.S. for the failed Hanoi summit and carefully stepped up its warning to the Trump administration. In contrast, no changes are detected in the message toward the domestic audience since Rodong Sinmum, the official mouthpiece of the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea, reported in early March that Trump and Kim strengthened mutual respect and trust in Hanoi and agreed to continue constructive dialogues. Pyongyang might be worried that any official hawkish statement on Washington’s demands at the Hanoi summit would let the domestic audience suspect the supreme leader failed at the negotiation table with the president of the United States.

Choe said Kim will make a final decision on whether to suspend the test moratorium and said she “expects” he will clarify his position soon. This sounds like a warning that Pyongyang may be heading to a “new way” that Kim indicated in his New Year’s Day speech earlier this year. The timing and substance of Kim’s official repositioning would depend on his observation of the U.S. reaction. Now the ball is on the net again.

Yonho Kim is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from David Stanley’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons. 

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10 Issues to Watch for on the Korean Peninsula in 2019

By Mark Tokola, Phil Eskeland, Troy Stangarone, Kyle Ferrier, Juni Kim, Yong Kwon, and Sang Kim

2018 was a year of dramatic change on the Korean Peninsula. The prospect of war that seemed to growth with each North Korean nuclear or missile test receded as North Korea, the United States, and South Korea moved towards diplomacy which culminated in the historic summit meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un in Singapore.

While the move towards diplomacy with North Korea was the top story of 2018, the year also saw South Korea successfully host the 2018 Winter Olympics, South Korean President Moon Jae-in move more directly towards implementing his income lead growth strategy, and K-pop take another significant step towards breaking out in the United States.

As we move into 2019, some of the big questions facing the Korean Peninsula will center around whether real progress can be made with North Korea now that we are beyond the initial stages of diplomacy and what that means for inter-Korean relations. Other key issues for 2019 will be how the U.S.-China trade war plays out and the implications for South Korea, as well as whether income lead growth will be able to overcome some of the initial implementation challenges it has faced.

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 ahead:

Whether a Peace Process Can Develop

It is generally believed that the denuclearization of North Korea will be accompanied by a “peace process” (or peace regime, or peace declaration, or end-of-war declaration – there are many terms being tossed around) but what this would actually mean or whether it would come before or after an agreement on denuclearization is unclear.  The “peace process” may come in pieces.  There is nothing to prevent North and South Korea from declaring on their own that peace has come to the peninsula.  Similarly, the United States and North Korea could issue a joint statement saying that have no hostile intent towards one another.  If such statements can promote denuclearization or decrease tensions, well and good.  The devilish details would be in what concrete steps if any would accompany a declaration of peace.

2019 may well see announcements of peace on the Korean Peninsula.  It would seem like an irresistible flourish to mark Kim Jong-un’s visit to Seoul, or to give an appearance of progress for a second Trump-Kim Summit.  But, watch for the details.  Would a declaration of peace be accompanied by a road map towards denuclearization? A normalization of relations with liaison offices being established in Washington and Pyongyang?  A more wide-ranging commitment by North Korea to restrain its belligerent behavior beyond denuclearization, such as in cyber or other weapons systems?  Would there be a move towards formally ending the Korean War by winding up the armistice? Thinking through what a peace process would mean reveals that there are big issues beyond denuclearization.

Will the United States Lift Sanctions on North Korea?

In his New Year’s Day address, Kim Jong-un called for the United States to lift sanctions if it wants the process of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons to go forward. In the past, the Trump administration has said that North Korea would have to dismantle or substantially dismantle its weapons programs before sanctions relief would be possible. With progress with North Korea stalled, one of the key questions for the Trump administration will be whether it sticks to its stance or accommodates North Korea’s push for sanctions relief.

If the Trump administration decided to move forward on sanctions relief there are four general ways it could look to pursue to move the talks forward and demonstrate good faith. The first area would be to support inter-Korean engagement. Here the administration could support further sanctions waivers to allow inter-Korean economic projects to advance. At the United Nations, the administration could support removing one or more specific sanctions that have been placed on North Korea. Another, more likely option at the UN, would be for the administration to pursue time-limited waivers of sanctions that are contingent on progress by North Korea in dismantling its nuclear programs. The final option would be for the administration to waive one or more specific U.S. sanctions where it has the authority to provide a national interest waiver.

Burden Sharing and the U.S.-Korea Military Relationship

As part of his professed “America First” values, U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized South Korea, and other U.S. allies, for what he views as an unfair defense burden to America for stationing U.S. troops. The U.S. has maintained a military presence in South Korea since the Korean War in the 1950s and South Korea currently hosts 28,500 American troops, the third largest number of troops stationed in a foreign country after Japan and Germany. Ten rounds of negotiations occurred throughout 2018 between U.S. and South Korean officials to renew the Special Measures Agreement, a 2014 burden sharing deal that is set to expire at the end of 2018. The latest round failed to reach a deal over demands from the U.S. for South Korea to greatly increase its contribution and has prompted fresh concerns over the U.S.’s commitment to the alliance. Without a new deal in place, Korean workers at U.S. military bases in South Korea are in danger of being put on leave in the New Year. If left unresolved, the ongoing debate over cost-sharing could greatly hinder future U.S.-ROK relations.

The Future of THAAD in South Korea

China’s protest of the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries, which were provided by the U.S. military, in South Korea in 2017 led to a political and economic row between the two countries. A resulting Chinese ban on tourism to South Korea and South Korean goods eventually gave way to an agreement late last year to normalize trade relations. Although trade and tourism numbers have started to rebound in 2018 after dramatic decreases in 2017, negative repercussions still remain, though the exact cost of the sanctions are hard to definitively quantify South Korea has likely lost more than $13 billion from the decline in tourism alone. In particular, the Korean conglomerate Lotte, which provided the land for THAAD deployment, has suffered from the after-effects of China’s sanctions with its stores in China shuttering due to lost business.

For 2019, it will be worth watching if the numbers continue to recover and how South Korean businesses adapt to the potential risks of dealing with a volatile Chinese market. For Lotte’s part, the company has actively courted Southeast Asian markets to make up for Chinese losses. It will also be worth watching if THAAD becomes part of talks with North Korea or the expected results of a South Korean environmental impact study affect its deployment.

U.S.-Korea Trade Relations – Section 232 Investigation

The past year has seen great progress in ameliorating initial uncertainties:  exports of U.S. goods and services to Korea increased 10 percent; the bilateral trade deficit declined by 43 percent; and agreements were reached and ratified to modify the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) and to limit Korean steel exports to the United States.

Nonetheless, there is still one looming threat – the possible imposition of U.S. tariffs as high as 25 percent on imported motor vehicles and parts from South Korea.  The Commerce Department has until February 17, 2019, to release the results of its Section 232 investigation into the national security implications of imported autos and parts.  If the report concludes that these products are a threat to U.S. national security, the President has until May 17, 2019, to make a final decision on tariffs.  However, because Korea and the U.S. concluded their negotiations on KORUS and steel two months before the Commerce Department launched this investigation, other major auto producers – Canada, Mexico, Japan, and the European Union – received reprieves or waivers on higher tariffs during their trade talks with the United States.  No decision has yet been made to exempt South Korea from higher tariffs even though Korea imposes zero tariffs on motor vehicles imported from the United States; the revisions to KORUS made several changes benefiting U.S. automakers, including a 20-year extension of the 25 percent U.S. tariff on imported pick-up trucks; and the value of U.S. imports of motor vehicles and parts from Korea has steadily declined since 2015.  Imposing a 25 percent tariff on imported cars and parts would also add approximately 10 percent to the production cost of Korean name-plated cars assembled in Georgia and Alabama, making their vehicles less affordable to the American public, resulting in a significant reduction in employment at both their manufacturing facilities and their dealerships.

Compounding the issue is the frustration that President Trump expressed on November 28th regarding the recent announcement of the closure of four GM plants in the U.S. that make auto parts and smaller vehicles.  The President tweeted, “the countries that send us cars have taken advantage of the U.S. for decades,” reflecting a fundamental worldview that he has believed for over 30 years.  Trump added, “if we [imposed a 25 percent tariff on] cars coming in, many more cars would be built here.”  Because Korea still exports some cars to the U.S. that compete against GM, the threat of a higher tariff could be used to pressure Korean car manufacturers to move even more production to the United States.  President Trump also desires that Korea pay much more to continue stationing U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula.  He could use the threat of higher car tariffs as another pressure point on South Korea.  Unless Korea is granted an exemption on the auto tariffs, much of the goodwill in the bilateral trade relationship that has been generated over the past year will quickly dissipate because it will be perceived as bad faith in terms of moving the goalposts in bilateral trade negotiations.

The U.S.-China Trade Conflict

On the surface, tension in U.S.-China trade relations does not appear to affect South Korea too much because South Korea’s economy is more aligned with the United States.  However, because China is now Korea’s largest trading partner, South Korea could be caught in the undertow of the churn in U.S.-China friction.  Some Korean brand consumer electronic products are assembled in China and subsequently exported to the United States, which now has to be re-thought in light of the threat of U.S. tariffs as high as 25 percent on Chinese exports.  Other products assembled in China also contain significant Korean content.  For example, the screen on the new Apple iPhone XS is made by either Samsung or LG.  The Korean stock market frequently gyrates at any movement in U.S.-China trade talks – up when negotiations progress and down when discussions stall.  The two sides have given themselves until March 1, 2019, to conclude a successful agreement.

However, many of the irritants in the U.S.-China trade relationship are deep and foundational problems to the Chinese economy and most likely cannot be cured in less than three months.  If an agreement is reached that just makes marginal changes on the edges, such as a commitment by China to purchase more U.S. products or lowering the tariff on imported autos, then the U.S., and by extension, Korea, will continue to face long-term economic challenges from China.  If the U.S. acts in concert with other nations that have similar concerns about unfair and trade-illegal Chinese practices, then multilateral action can spark necessary reform to China’s economy.  However, if the talks break down and the U.S. continues to act alone by imposing more and more tariffs irrespective of how it affects constituencies in the U.S. or other nations like Korea, China will ironically gain the moral high ground as the defender of free trade and unnecessarily delay the market-oriented changes the free world needs to see take place in China.

U.S.-Korea Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific

The “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” first introduced over a year ago, now underlies Washington’s approach to the region. South Korea has yet to officially join the strategy nor is it likely to in 2019 due to concerns in Seoul that it could be interpreted as “containing” China or even forcing its hand to choose between Beijing and Washington. However, the overlapping goals between the Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Moon administration’s “New Southern Policy” provide new opportunities for both the U.S. and South Korea to work together beyond the Peninsula.

Both visions focus on increasing engagement with South and Southeast Asia on many of the same key issues based on the same core values, albeit in different ways. The clearest means to bridge the two is through infrastructure projects. The U.S. is looking to mobilize large, high-standard loans and the quality and cooperative nature of South Korean loans, Seoul’s efforts to direct more development assistance to ASEAN countries and India, and the competitiveness of Korean firms in building modern infrastructure make South Korea an ideal partner in achieving this goal. In 2019, look for Seoul and Washington to cooperate on infrastructure projects in the region as well as highlight their joint efforts.

Improving the Environment in South Korea

Although air pollution arose as an issue during the 2017 presidential election, leading candidates at the time focused largely on expanding dialogue with China and remained quiet on domestic sources of this public health threat. The issue returned with a vengeance this past November when extreme levels of ultrafine dust forced Seoul to restrict the number of vehicles on the road and construction. This comes at a particularly awkward time for the Moon administration, which responded to public concerns following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster by promising to phase out nuclear power in Korea.

Absent nuclear power, cleaner energy could be drawn from natural gas, which South Korea has been importing in increasing amount – particularly from the United States. However, this exposes Korea to geopolitical issues and market volatility. The Moon government is also making a big push to increase renewable energy capacity.

At this juncture, South Korea may consider looking to Taiwan – voters there rejected the phase-out policy in a referendum this year. With nuclear energy satisfying both clean air and energy security, this issue is poised to be revisited by both the government and the public in 2019.

South Korea’s Income Lead Growth/Job Creation

The state of the economy remains the biggest source of concern for South Koreans. After taking several months to get up and running, the first full year of the Moon administration’s income-led growth agenda has fallen short of its ambitious goals. Responding to his falling approval rating in light of underwhelming initial results that have increasingly become a major issue of public debate, President Moon has devoted more government resources to his economic agenda this year. However, the key question for 2019 is will this be enough to win back public support and reinvigorate the economy?

Moon’s income-led growth strategy is a novel approach to resolving the stubborn structural issues in the economy, but this also means it is largely unproven. The IMF and OECD support the agenda’s increased social spending, particularly given the government’s fiscal space, but these policies must also start creating jobs and bolstering growth to be sustainable. Even if the agenda is on the right path, the window to push it through may be closing. More interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve and the prospect of worsening trade tensions between China and the U.S., both of which have already impacted the economy, could make it harder for Moon’s agenda to find more success this year.

The #MeToo Movement and Women’s Right 

Heightened advocacy for women’s rights was a global trend in 2018. In South Korea, the #MeToo movement gained momentum with women stepping forward with allegations of sexual harassment and violence against high-profile figures, including presidential-hopeful Ahn Hee-jung, poet Ko Un, and award-winning movie director Kim Ki-duk. However, advocates faced obstacles ranging from a relatively lenient legal code to deeply-entrenched social attitudes. Providing further proof of the current society’s antipathy to women’s concerns, the brave actions of women who came out publicly with testimonies of abuse – despite receiving international attention – resulted in very few prosecutions.

Korean women last year also confronted a proliferation of hidden cameras, which prompted protests demanding stronger punishment for trafficking of digital material that was filmed without consent. In response, the government has so-far announced tougher punishments for trafficking of these materials and announced plans to better police online sex crimes and remove illegal footage from the internet more swiftly. These will go hand-in-hand with broader protections such as extensions to the statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases and measures that would allow victims of harassment and abuse to report these crimes anonymously.

Notwithstanding, many advocates recognize that strengthening the legal system is a necessary but insufficient means to achieve true social change. With many women’s rights organizations now mobilized in the wake of the scandals in 2018, open debates about how cultural attitudes will be reformed will likely intensify in 2019.

Bonus Issue: Will Kim Jong-un Go to Seoul?

At their summit meeting in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un agreed to Moon Jae-in’s proposal that he visit Seoul before 2018 ended. Kim never took that trip, but in his recent letter to Moon he expressed a desire to meet with Moon frequently in 2019 and “a strong determination to visit Seoul while watching future situation.” Whether Kim makes that trip will be one issue that many will be watching in 2019.

It is not surprising that Kim did not meet with Moon in Seoul in 2018. With progress in talks with the United States stalled and his meeting with Trump postponed until early 2019, there would have been little that Kim could have achieved in Seoul. Any trip to Seoul in 2019 will likely be dependent on how Kim’s next meeting with Trump goes and whether there is any historical progress Kim can make in Seoul. He will likely want to achieve more that than act of a North Korean leader visiting Seoul for the trip to go forward.

Beyond whether Kim will visit Seoul will be the question of how his visit is received. At the moment, Kim’s image has improved in South Korea with the current diplomacy and 60 percent of South Koreans would have supported the trip if he had taken it in December. One issue to watch from any visit will be whether it builds support for inter-Korean ties among South Koreans or causes them to reassess the current opening with North Korea?

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America, Phil Eskeland is the Executive Director of Operations and Policy, Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade, Yong Kwon is the Director of Communications, Kyle Ferrier is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research, Sang Kim is the Director of Public Affairs and Intern Coordinator, and Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

Image created by Juni Kim.

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2018 in Review: When Donald Met Jong-un

By Troy Stangarone

If 2017 was the year of “fire and fury,” 2018 saw the United States and North Korea turn from the rhetoric of war to diplomacy as U.S. President Donald Trump met North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un at the first ever U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore.

If 2018 was the year the diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula, it was also a year of frustrations as the United States and North Korea have been unable to make progress on agreeing to a path towards the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile programs, or in taking steps to build the new relationship promised in Singapore. With U.S.-North Korea relations stalled, North-South relations have been unable to move forward at the pace hoped for despite more extensive agreements on inter-Korean cooperation.

While North Korea dominated the headlines in 2018, the past year began with South Korea’s successful hosting of the Winter Olympics. It saw the United States and South Korea agree to revise the U.S.-Korea FTA (KORUS), but South Korea also become caught in the United States trade war with China. The United States and South Korea also failed to reach an agreement on burden sharing.

On the domestic front, the Moon Jae-in administration implemented a series of new policies to advance an income lead approach to economic growth, but so far has yet to see the results hoped for from its reforms.

As we take our annual look back at the events that helped to shape the Korean peninsula during the past year, it is also an opportunity to review the events we highlighted on The Peninsula in our annual 10 Issues to Watch for on The Korean Peninsula in 2018 blog and the events we didn’t see coming.

Looking back, we largely touched on what would be the key issues on the Korean peninsula in 2018, but we missed on the sudden shift to summit diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula and what in one poll has been identified as the top news story in the United States in 2018 – the summit meeting between Trump and Kim. Here are the issues we identified:

  1. Could War Break Out on the Korean Peninsula?

Coming into 2017, tensions between the United States and North Korea had been growing. Pyongyang’s December 2017 inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) test demonstrated it had the ability to reach anywhere in the continental United States, even if it had not yet completely mastered ICBMs. Despite the increasing threat of war, we were largely right in our analysis when we said that “war can, and most likely will, be avoided as long as cooler heads in Washington and Pyongyang prevail.” What we largely didn’t foresee is that war would be avoided not just because “cooler heads” would prevail, but that would lead to a year of North Korean summits with South Korea, China, and the United States.

  1. The Advancement of North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Programs

With the movement towards dialogue between the United States and North Korea, our prediction that North Korea would continue to test missiles fell flat. For all of 2018, North Korea refrained from conducting missile tests to either demonstrate new capabilities or to express its displeasure at the progress of talks with the United States. At the same time, there is every indication that our second prediction was correct. Kim Jong-un pledged in his 2018 New Year’s Address that North Korea would continue to expand its supply of missiles and fissile material and has yet to shut down its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon or its missile production facilities.

  1. The Impact of Sanctions on North Korea

On the surface, sanctions have worked. Exports to China, North Korea’s primary trading partner have fallen to under $200 million through November. At the same time, despite sanctions causing declines in exports to China and other countries, there are signs that the markets are remarkably stable. In data published by DailyNK, the exchange rate and the price of commodities in markets have been fairly stable. Contrast this with Iran, where the U.S. withdraw has caused the Iranian Rial to drop in value. While the North Korean economy is not in a good position, the effect of sanctions seems to be less than many would have expected.

  1. The 2018 Winter Olympics

By all measures the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang were a success. South Korea finished tied for sixth for the most medals won, and concerns about attendance were ultimately relieved as the organizers came within their goal of selling 90 percent of the tickets. Most importantly, North Korea took part in the games easing concerns that it could disrupt the festivities and its participation helped to jump start a year of diplomacy.

  1. Special Measures Agreement/Burden Sharing

The United States and South Korea have yet to conclude discussions on a new Special Measures Agreement to determine how much South Korea will contribute to the non-personnel costs of U.S. troops in South Korea. While the failure to conclude an agreement has not yet affected the alliance, the current agreement expires at the end of 2018. Indications are that the talks are stalled over an insistence by the Trump administration that South Korea raise its contribution to burden sharing by potentially twice as much as South Korea was previously contributing.

  1. U.S.-Korea Trade Policy

The United States and South Korea were able to quickly reach an agreement on modest adjustments to the KORUS FTA. With the National Assembly having approved the changes and the U.S. trade deficit with Korea continuing to decline, the concerns around the KORUS FTA have begun to dissipate.

However, the KORUS FTA was not the only trade issue in the U.S.-Korea economic relationship. As we noted last year, the U.S. used a Section 232 national security investigation to push South Korea into agreeing to a quota on its steel exports to the United States equal to 70 percent of its shipments over the last three years, and also imposed tariffs on Korean washing machines as part of a safeguard case. South Korea may not be out of the woods yet, as a decision will likely come on a Section 232 case on automobiles and automotive parts early next year. South Korea is only major automotive producer to not receive some type of assurance that it will not have tariffs imposed on its exports if automotive imports are found to have national security implications.

  1. Will China’s Economic Pressure on South Korea Over THAAD End?

As we foresaw at the beginning of the year, China’s pressure over the decision to deploy THAAD has moderated rather than disappeared. Despite South Korea and China agreeing in October of 2017 to normalize economic relations, Lotte is in the process of closing its Lotte Mart stores in China, and the effects on tourism can still be felt. Based on the latest data from the Korea Tourism Organization, a bit more than 400,000 Chinese tourists traveled to South Korea in November. This is up from just under 300,000 at the same point last year. However, despite the increase in Chinese tourism in November, it is still below its pre-THAAD highs. All told, the South Korean economy has lost more than $13 billion from the decline in Chinese tourism alone.

  1. Moon Jae-in’s Promised Economic Reforms

The Moon administration continued to implement its income lead growth policies in 2018 taking steps to shorten the work week and raising the minimum wage for the second year in a row. However, the results have been mixed, especially with slowing job growth in August and September. South Korea also saw estimates for its GDP growth in 2018 and 2019 revised down. Some of this revision is due to external factors, but declines in investment and job growth are also weighing on the economy. The new year will be an important period for determining whether the current challenges are due more to the markets adjusting to the new policies or whether the policies themselves will need to be adjusted.

  1. South Korean Local Elections

The ruling Minjoo Party won a resounding victory in the 2018 local elections. The party won 14 of the 17 mayoral and gubernatorial posts up for grabs, as well as 11 of 12 by-elections for the National Assembly. Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon also won a third term as mayor.

  1. Hallyu’s Ongoing Rollercoaster Will Continue

The growth of K-pop around the globe was one of the major stories in 2018, even being highlighted by the BBC as BTS became the first Korean group to enter the UK Top 40 and land in the top spot of the iTunes album chart in 60 countries. Despite still facing challenges in China as part of the fallout from THAAD, K-pop saw growth in Japan and in Latin American markets. However, the big success for K-pop came in its breakthrough in the United States. BTS had two albums reach the top of the Billboard 200 and three songs on the Billboard Hot 100. However, the success extended beyond BTS as four other Korean acts landed albums in the top 40 of the Billboard 200 and BLACKPINK saw its video Ddu-Du Ddu-Du gain the fifth most views on YouTube in a 24 hour period among all genres.

The Bonus Issue: Will There Be Constitutional Reform?

While the Moon administration pushed for a package on Constitutional reform to be concluded in time for the local elections, ultimately reform efforts stalled in the National Assembly.

Beyond the events that we expected, here is a look at some of the unexpected events that helped to shape 2018:

  1. When Donald Met Jong-un

Prior to 2018 no sitting U.S. president had met with the leader of North Korea. That changed in 2018 as U.S. President Donald Trump altered the normal protocol of only meeting a foreign leader, especially one such as Kim Jong-un, until after a series of deliverables have been agreed to by both sides. The summit in Singapore produced an outline for moving relations forward, but there has been virtually no progress in talks with North Korea, despite the United States canceling military exercises with North Korea. In spite of the lack of progress, Trump has professed his goodwill for Kim saying “And then we fell in love, OK? No, really, he wrote me beautiful letters, and they’re great letters. We fell in love.”

  1. Perceptions of Kim Jong-un in South Korea Improved – A Lot

If meeting a sitting U.S. president was an historic moment, it was preceded by Kim Jong-un being the first North Korean leader to cross into South Korea, even if only to the South Korean side of the DMZ. Your author was in Seoul at the time watching Kim cross the demarcation line live on his cell phone in a taxi to the National Assembly. What struck me at the time was lack of coordination on the North Korean side as the delegation walked to the DMZ and the lighthearted nature of Kim Jong-un as he invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to briefly visit North Korea before their meeting.

Kim’s visit made an impression on South Koreans as well. Prior to the April Summit Kim had an approval rating in South Korea of 10 percent, though that rose to 31 percent after the summit. More impressive, after the summit a new poll found that 78 percent of South Koreans saw Kim as trustworthy. A degree of goodwill remains as 60 percent of South Korea would have welcomed Kim to Seoul had he come in December as expected.

  1. Inter-Korean Relations

In addition to the April summit, Kim and Moon held two additional summit meetings – a second summit in the DMZ and Moon’s visit to Pyongyang. These summits resulted in the Panmunjom and Pyongyang Declarations which laid out steps to improve inter-Korean relations. While sanctions related to North Korea’s weapons programs have prevented significant movement on inter-Korea relations, the two Korea’s did take steps to advance relations in 2018. In addition to the summit meetings, the two Koreas held the first family reunion since 2015, took steps to reduce military tensions and implement a new military agreement in the DMZ, and conducted a joint survey and groundbreaking ceremony for a project to reconnect the railways on the Korean Peninsula.

  1. North Korea’s Cyber Activities

North Korean has become one of the world’s most active cyber powers and despite the diplomacy with the United States and South Korea, Pyongyang kept up its activities in 2018. According to Group-IB, since the beginning of 2017 approximately two-thirds of the theft of cryptocurrency has been by North Korea, netting the regime $571 million. It also used the Pyeongchang Olympics and summit meetings with Kim Jong-un as potential bait for phishing attacks.

  1. The U.S.-China Trade War

In a globalized world where countries are part of supply chains, tariffs are an imprecise tool and South Korea found itself one the countries most exposed to a trade war between the United States and China. More than 40 percent of South Korea’s GDP is accounted for by exports, while China and the United States are South Korea’s top two trading partners, respectively. For most of 2018, South Korea had managed the conflict fairly well by increasing exports to China and resolving the issues around the KORUS FTA. However, in the year’s last quarter South Korea began to see declining demand for its top export to China, semiconductors, while overall sales of automobiles began to decline significantly in China – signs that the effects of the trade war are beginning to set in.

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

Image created by Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at KEI.

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Could a Limited Inspection Agreement Build Confidence in U.S.-North Korea Talks?

By Troy Stangarone

With talks to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs stalled, South Korean President Moon Jae-in recently sent his national security advisor, Chung Eui-young, to North Korea to prepare for the upcoming inter-Korean summit and see if Chung could jumpstart the talks.

While Kim Jong-un reaffirmed his commitment to denuclearization in his talks with Chung, he also expressed frustration.  In press remarks after his trip, Chung said that “Chairman Kim … expressed frustration over the doubt shown by some parts of the international society about his will … North Korea has been preemptively carrying out measures needed for denuclearization, and Kim said he would appreciate that such good faith is accepted with good faith.”

In light of North Korea’s track record in prior negotiations, as well as Kim Jong-un’s own failure to follow through on the Leap Day Agreement, skepticism about his sincerity is understandable. Especially, since Kim Jong-un has only expressed a willingness to dismantle his programs in private and has yet to make similar statements in public.

North Korea has taken steps towards the dismantlement of its programs, such as the collapsing of North Korea’s nuclear test facility at Pyungge-ri and the dismantlement of a missile engine test facility in western North Korea. According to Chung, Kim Jong-un said that the nuclear test site is now unusable and the dismantlement of the engine test facility prevents North Korea from testing missiles. However, North Korea has not allowed inspections of those facilities, and in the case of the nuclear test facility only allowed journalists to witness its collapse. Some experts have suggested that the explosions at Pyungge-ri may not have been powerful enough to have collapsed the tunnels. The importance of the missile test site is also debatable.

During the Six Party Talks, negotiations ultimately fell apart over North Korea’s unwillingness to agree to inspection of it facilities. One way that Kim Jong-un could demonstrate his good faith would be to allow for international inspectors to visit the two dismantled sites.

To make inspections more palatable to Kim Jong-un, and to lessen concerns that the United States is asking something of North Korea without giving anything in return, one way to build trust and help reboot the talks would be to agree to an initial limited inspection agreement. During the latter part of the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union allowed for inspections of facilities in their territory. In return for allowing inspection of the Pyungge-ri nuclear test facility and the dismantled engine test site, the United States and South Korea could offer to allow North Korea to inspect two appropriate military facilities in South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has little to lose by allowing limited inspections to advance the process, as North Korea will need to agree to more robust inspections in any denuclearization agreement. However, an unwillingness on North Korea’s part to allow inspections of facilities that have been dismantled will only allow concerns about North Korea’s true intentions to harden.

While limited inspections will not remove the skepticism that some have regarding North Korea’s intentions, they could help to build the trust that will be needed if the United States and North Korea are to successfully reach an agreement.

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 Wikimedia Commons.

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South Korea’s New Goal: Jumpstarting Denuclearization Talks

By Yonho Kim 

The historic June 12 Singapore Summit opened an unconventional window of opportunity for negotiated solutions to the North Korea nuclear problem, changing the narrative from a potential war to peace and trust building on the Korean Peninsula. In brokering the summit, South Korea played a critical role of “ice breaker” to initiate dialogues at the summit level. At their first meeting in April, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed on “the realization of the nuclear-free Korean peninsula through complete denuclearization,” a topic saved for following U.S.-North Korea dialogues in the previous inter-Korea meetings, as their common goal. In restoring the momentum of pre-summit negotiation between the United States and North Korea, President Moon also proved that South Korea can play a crucial role in facilitating the denuclearization process by having a second summit with Kim without any lengthy preparations. Moon’s peace initiative turned out to be one of the determining factors that led to the ruling Democratic Party’s landslide victory in the June local elections. However, as much as it took credit for initiating a major geopolitical shift in the region, the Moon government must share the responsibility for any failures in President Donald Trump’s North Korean nuclear outreach.

The post-summit negotiations between the United States and North Korea have achieved little progress in implementing the Singapore Agreement. Although Pyongyang followed up on its commitment to the repatriation of American remains from the Korean War, it showed no intention to take meaningful initial steps toward denuclearization unless the United States move forward with a declaration ending the Korean War. This tug of war reveals a “fundamentally different understanding of what Trump and Kim had agreed upon in Singapore.” Whereas Trump envisions complete and immediate denuclearization followed by economic benefits to the North, Kim believes a step-by-step process and action-for-action formula were endorsed at the summit. The sequencing problem could worsen if the working level officials are not as excited about the negotiations as the top leaders are even though their leaders are continuing ‘letter diplomacy.’

The deadlock not only drew sharp criticism of Moon’s North Korea policy from conservatives but also posed a threat to political unity among the progressives in South Korea. While maintaining sanctions on the North, the Moon government supported speedy negotiations on exchanging phased denuclearization measures with corresponding economic and political benefits to North Korea. But the nuclear stalemate undermined Moon’s argument that Kim showed willingness for complete denuclearization. The progressives, becoming increasingly impatient, started to call for South Korea to take bold initiatives to restart economic cooperation with the North.

To make it worse, in early August Moon’s approval ratings fell below 60 percent for the first time since he took the office. It was a shocking contrast to his previous approval ratings in the 70 to 80 percent largely thanks to broad support for his peace-facilitiating North Korea policy and the series of summit meetings with Kim. However, a gloomy economic outlook, including sluggish job growth, emerged on the forefront of public concern and started to overshadow Moon’s diplomatic performance.

Even with the lackluster results of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s third visit to Pyongyang in July, the progressive thinkers in Seoul criticized the main stream in Washington for being too quick to declare failure. However, as the stalemate continues, the progressives started to revisit their optimism; they acknowledeged that the United States and North Korea overestimated the value of their own concessions while expecting too much from the other in return. The optimists emphasize the inevitability of North Korea’s path to denuclearization led by harsh international sanctions, insurmountable costs of betrayal if Pyongyang rejects economic and political benefits, and the trust building process followed by security guarantee. However, there are critical variables that undermine the validity of the optimism. For example, the sanctions regime has lost force due to improved relations between China and North Korea. China would not be motivated to actively address the current nuclear stalemate between Washington and Pyongyang with a new round of U.S.-China strategic rivalry sparked by the Trump administration’s aggressive trade policy.

Then what are the choices left for the Moon government? Obviously, the denuclearization negotiation must be resuscitated to maintain the momentum. And South Korea is the one who has the biggest motivation to jumpstart the negotiation. Absent a roadmap agreed by the United States and North Korea, the stalemate at the working level must be addressed at the summit level again. If an end-of-war declaration is not viable at this stage, at least the process of the declaration has to be launched in return for corresponding measures by the North, including declaring its timeline for denuclearization. Another Moon-Kim summit could serve as a stepping stone to a second Trump-Kim summit that will facilitate the process. In addition, the accelerated improvement of inter-Korean relations and a refreshed proposal on inter-Korean economic cooperation that envisions regional initiatives would assure Pyongyang of immense material benefits of denuclearization.

Moon’s speech on Korea’s 73rd Liberation Day seems to contain these strategic judgements. He said “Developments in inter-Korean relations are not the by-effects of progress in the relationship between the North and the United States. Rather, advancement in inter-Korean relations is the driving force behind denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” When Moon visits Pyongyang next month for his third meeting with Kim, the leaders will “take an audacious step to proceed toward the declaration of an end to the Korean War and the signing of a peace treaty as well as the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Moon also proclaimed that he will “lead efforts to promote dialogue on denuclearization between North Korea and the United States.” Both audacious and risky is his stated goal to hold groundbreaking ceremonies by the end of this year to relink the roads and railways between the two Koreas that could lay the groundwork for an East Asian Railroad Community. It is still unclear how closely Moon’s remarks were coordinated with the Trump administration that wants to maintain sanctions pressure on North Korea until denuclearization. Time will tell whether Trump and Kim will take Moon’s propositions.

Yonho Kim is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

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

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North Korean Denuclearization: Whose Side is Time on?

By Mark Tokola

Who is in the biggest hurry to conclude current negotiations: the U.S., South Korea, or North Korea?  It is not easy to tell.  At the end of 2017, the Trump Administration conveyed a sense of urgency to put an end to North Korea’s growing nuclear threat, through negotiations if possible, but an end in any case, and sooner rather than later.  North Korea has kept up an impressive pace of summitry with Kim Jong-un meeting with Moon Jae-in, Xi Jinping, and Donald Trump all in the first half of 2018.  Perhaps Kim is impatient.  And, South Korea’s diplomatic efforts towards North Korea seem intended to maintain momentum with the apparent concern that if there is a lull in engagement, progress could stall.  If the bicycle doesn’t keep moving forward, it could fall over.

In any negotiation, there is a presumption that the side most eager to conclude the talks will have to make the most concessions.  Consumers know not to appear overly enthusiastic about closing a deal on a house or a car.  Walk away and wait for the price to come down.  In the aftermath of the June 12 Singapore Summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, U.S. and North Korean negotiators seem to be easing their foot off the gas, not because a settlement is less important than it was in 2017, but because there is a negotiating advantage in appearing to have all the time in the world.  South Korea is still urging rapid progress, which seems appropriate because they are under less pressure than North Korea or the United States to make major concessions; in the case of North Korea, to actually take steps towards denuclearization, or on the side of the United States, to accept that North Korea will retain some level of nuclear weaponry.

The United States has been unclear about its desired pace of negotiations or denuclearization.  President Trump said after his meeting with Kim Jong-un that we would soon see North Korea making positive steps but that a few more meetings might be necessary to conclude arrangements.  Administration officials have mentioned the end of Donald Trump’s current term as a time frame in which we might see North Korean denuclearization.  North Korean officials have undoubtedly also seen private American commentators give time frames of ten to fifteen years to complete the denuclearization process.

The main impression that President Trump conveys is that the deal is already made.  He has said that he has a contract and a handshake with Kim Jong-un to denuclearize — all that is left is for lower-level officials to fill in the details.  If this is the case, then minor setbacks in talks, evidence of North Korea continuing to produce missiles or to improve its nuclear facilities, or China backing off some of its sanctions enforcement are annoyances but secondary to the fact that essential deal has been struck.  As long as North Korea does not carry out another nuclear test, a long-range missile test, or a serious conventional provocation, this version of the state of play can remain credible with the American public.  Experts might cavil that the threat from North Korea has not diminished and could even be growing, but the absence of testing combined with occasional positive gestures or statements from North Korea can continue to look like a Trump Administration win for a long time to come.

Historically, it has been assumed that North Korea can afford to be patient in approaching the negotiating table and is prepared to drag out negotiations.  U.S. elections have put pressure on American leaders to succeed in talks whereas the Kims have been able to wait for the U.S. electoral clock to pressure American negotiators, or to wait them out and see if their successors will be more accommodating.  That may no longer be true.  Kim may need sanctions relief to promote his ambitions for North Korean economic growth.  He may be under pressure from China to reduce tensions on the peninsula.  And Kim may believe that he will never have a better opportunity to make an advantageous deal that he will with the unconventional Donald Trump and the progressive Moon Jae-in.

If the U.S. is seeming a little more patient and North Korea a little less patient than usual towards the pace of negotiations, what might push them towards speeding up?  If sanctions are putting the Kim regime under domestic pressure, Kim Jong-un may want a settlement to remove them – or at least to achieve a phased reduction of sanctions.  As unlikely as it seems, Kim may even be under some domestic political pressure to succeed in the talks, having created the public impression that he initiated them and is personally engaged in them.

The Trump Administration may feel a need to pick up the pace if there is clear and disturbing evidence that North Korea is continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction, or is caught in headline-grabbing instances of cyber-attacks or cyber-crime, or engages is some other form of blatant provocation.  The U.S. may also need to accelerate denuclearization negotiations if the inter-Korean talks make great strides and create an impression that they are outstripping the U.S.-North Korean talks, thereby creating a gap between the United States and South Korea.

Absent such outside developments, the U.S.-North Korean denuclearization talks may slow down simply because they are complicated, to be replaced in the headlines by other stories, not least of which will be mid-term elections in the United States.  The talks are drifting in the direction that North Korea prefers, one of mutual, step-by-step, unilateral gestures, e.g. U.S. suspension of joint military exercises and North Korean return of U.S. Korean War remains, rather than the stated U.S. preference of a simple two-step process: (1) complete denuclearization, to be followed by (2) normalization of relations and economic engagement.

This change in the nature of the negotiations is not necessarily a bad development if one assumes that the North Korean process is more likely to reach a good outcome for both sides than is the U.S. all-or-nothing approach.  That may or may not be true depending upon North Korea’s sincerity.  The imponderable is what will happen if Donald Trump or Kim Jong-un become frustrated with the process.  How would they show their frustration?

The answer to the question, “Time is on whose side?” is that it probably is on everyone’s side when it comes to negotiating denuclearization and a more general settlement on the Korean Peninsula.  If North Korea takes provocative steps, such as weapons testing, out of frustration with the slowness of the talks, or if the U.S. dramatically steps up pressure because it believes that North Korea is insincere in its offer to denuclearize, the diplomatic process could rupture.  That would lead us to a situation at least as bad as prevailed in 2017, and perhaps even more dangerous because the pressure campaign designed to lead North Korea into negotiations would appear to have failed.  Diplomacy should be given a chance to succeed.

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

Photo from coolloud’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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