Tag Archive | "nuclear weapons"

The Kim-Xi Summit and the Implications for North Korean Denuclearization

By Troy Stangarone

After years of deteriorating relations between North Korea and China, Kim Jong-un recently made his first visit abroad to China. The surprise summit meeting between Kim Jong-un and Chinese President Xi Jinping comes ahead of highly anticipated summit meetings by Kim Jong-un with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump.

If Trump’s decision to meet with Kim was unexpected, Xi’s desire to meet with Kim prior to his summit meetings with Moon and Trump shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. With South Korean President Moon Jae-in leading efforts to reach out to Kim Jong-un and Trump’s decision to meet with Kim Jong-un, China risked being cut out of discussions of North Korea’s denuclearization all together. If that were to occur it would mean that it had used the leverage it had on North Korea to drive it to the table with the United States and left itself in no position to protect its own interests in any forthcoming talks. Something that was surely unpalatable to Beijing.

If there was ever any prospect of the United States sidelining China in talks over North Korea’s denuclearization, that prospect has ended. By inviting Kim Jong-un to China, Beijing ensures that it met with Kim Jong-un first and reminds the United States that it still has influence over the future of denuclearization and needs to be included in any talks. For Beijing this is about dealing itself back into the game and trying to influence the issues that Kim Jong-un may put on the table in talks. Ideally, Beijing would have also used it as an opportunity to reinforce to Kim that North Korea should avoid provocations in the run up to its summits with South Korea and the United States.

Ever the masters of playing one country off of another, North Korea likely recognized Beijing’s fading position, something which was only confirmed by Xi Jinping’s invitation, and saw it as an opportunity to repair relations with China and expand its options heading into talks with South Korea and the United States. With exports to China falling to only $9.4 million in February, and South Korea not budging on sanctions relief despite North Korea’s Olympic charm offensive, meeting with Xi sends a clear signal to the United States that North Korea has options if Washington’s demands on denuclearization go too far.

At the summit, Kim Jong-un also continued to send the right signals that denuclearization may be in the offing. Having invited President Trump to meet to discuss denuclearization, he is reported by a Chinese summary to have said “If South Korea and the United States respond with good will to our efforts and create an atmosphere of peace and stability, and take phased, synchronized measures to achieve peace, the issue of the denuclearization of the peninsula can reach resolution.” However, the vague nature of the statement still leaves unclear what North Korea is willing to offer and what it might expect in return.

Meeting with Xi Jinping also tells us something about North Korea’s domestic situation. After years of working to solidify his hold on power, Kim Jong-un is now firmly in control and does not fear the prospect of a coup when he travels abroad. It also suggests that sanctions have not yet taken deep hold. If the North Korean economy was in desperate straits, Kim Jong-un would have been unlikely to feel comfortable traveling abroad. All told, his trip to Beijing suggests, that at least for the moment, Kim is firmly in control.

In essence, the meeting between Kim and Xi has reset the dynamics on denuclearization. China has signaled that it will not be left on the sidelines, while North Korea has signaled that it has cards to play despite “maximum pressure.” The one questions that remains unclear is if North Korea was able to secure some measure of sanctions relief from China. If they have, convincing Pyongyang to denuclearize just became much more difficult.

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 Michael McDonough’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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North Korean Breakthrough?

By Mark Tokola

There were startling headlines on March 6 that North Korea is prepared to enter into talks, to freeze its nuclear and missile testing, and is willing to abandon its nuclear weapons.  This would be welcome news, but of course there are caveats and questions.  The first caveat is that this is North Korea’s new position as described by the South Korean delegation following talks in Pyongyang on March 5.  There is no reason to doubt the accuracy of the South Korean account of the talks, but it would be reassuring to hear the change of heart from North Korea directly.

The three main elements of the new North Korean position are reported to be: (1) North Korea is prepared to suspend nuclear and missile testing while prospective talks with the United States are ongoing; (2) North Korea sees no need to have nuclear weapons if the “military threat to North Korea is eliminated and its security guaranteed”; and (3) Kim Jong-un has offered a summit meeting with South Korea President Moon Jae-in in April at Panmunjom, in the DMZ.

The North Korean government has a record of backtracking on its offers and adding new conditions, so it may take a while to see how it will elaborate on the three elements.  An early question will be whether it will expect that U.S.-ROK joint military exercises, scheduled for April, to be modified.  If it does not — and there is some reporting that Kim Jong-un told the South Korean delegation that he understands that the April exercises will take place as scheduled — that would be an encouraging sign that Kim Jong-un actually intends to negotiate.  Washington and Seoul, for their part, may want to consider how to shape the exercises.  Planning and preparations are well underway for the April exercises, but there is some latitude to shape their public messaging.

On the second element, what North Korea would consider the elimination of the “military threat” to North Korea and what would constitute a “security guarantee,” are open to wide interpretation.  At one end of the spectrum would be their acceptance of a statement by the United States that it has no intention of attacking North Korea.  At the other end would be a demand that U.S. forces leave the Korean Peninsula and that the U.S.-ROK military alliance be scrapped.  North Korea may want assurances that its security is not threatened while maintaining its ability to threaten others, with conventional if not nuclear weapons.

A North Korean freeze on nuclear and missiles testing would be a positive development.  They have not tested since November and that has eased tensions.  A testing freeze would also be relatively verifiable.  Missile launches and nuclear detonations are difficult to hide. However, it would be a long road from a freeze to denuclearization, which would require an intrusive inspection regime. The U.S. and South Korean (and Chinese and Russian and United Nations) position that denuclearization must be “complete, verifiable, and irreversible,” could only be met by the outcome of complex and probably difficult negotiations.  Even a suspension of the production of nuclear material would not be sufficient because North Korea probably has produced enough, and hidden it, that it would require an enormous efforts to have confidence that it had actually “denuclearized.”

It does feel like a concession on Kim Jong-un’s part that he is offering to hold the inter-Korean summit at Panmunjom rather than Pyongyang.  Another test of his sincerity is whether he will expect “payment” in exchange for holding the summit, either through economic assistance, an easing of sanctions, or a suspension of U.S.-ROK military exercises.  An unconditional summit could lead to positive outcomes: an agreement on family reunions, humanitarian and medical assistance to North Korea that North Korea would allow to be monitored to ensure it serves its intended recipients, or cultural exchanges that might ease tensions without providing North Korean economic gains.

Has there been a breakthrough?  It is too soon to tell, but it certainly needs to be tested.  It is prudent to remain skeptical and too soon to make any concessions to North Korea before it makes any concrete steps towards denuclearization.  It seems most likely that North Korea may be trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul by trying to lure South Korea into weakening the alliance.  Or, North Korea may be making a sham offer with the intent of being able to blame the United States and South Korea when the diplomatic moves collapse.  This could be a way of lessening pressure from Beijing.

However, the possibility should be considered that this is an early sign of what success might look like.  The goal of the United States and South Korea has been to pressure North Korean into negotiations leading to denuclearization.  If maximum pressure and isolation were to work, wouldn’t it lead to something like the March 5 headlines?

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

Photo from Clay Gilliland’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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10 Issues to Watch for on the Korean Peninsula in 2018

By Mark Tokola, Phil Eskeland, Troy Stangarone, Jenna Gibson, Kyle Ferrier, Sang Kim, and Juni Kim

As we look ahead to what might occur in 2018 we should also consider how key events from 2017 will continue to shape the year ahead. In 2017, there was significant change on the Korean Peninsula. South Korea underwent political change as the Constitutional Court approved the impeachment of conservative President Park Geun-hye, opening the door to early presidential elections in May and the election of progressive Moon Jae-in. North Korea made significant advancements in its nuclear and missile programs, with both North and South Korea beginning to adjust to the changes brought by U.S. President Donald Trump.

After a year of growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula from North Korea’s nuclear and missile advances and concerns over war between the United States and North Korea, one of the key questions for 2018 will be whether the crisis will fester or will there be an opportunity to reduce tensions? There will also be significant focus on the impact of sanctions on the North Korean economy and whether they can change Kim Jong-un’s calculus.

However, 2018 will not only be about North Korea. In February, South Korea will welcome the world to PyeongChang for the 2018 Winter Olympics. While the Games will be a celebration in South Korea, there is also hope that they will help to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

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:

Could War Break Out on the Korean Peninsula?

With the leaders of North Korea and the United States fighting over nuclear buttons, it is hard to imagine a more precarious situation on the Korean Peninsula going into 2018. But war can, and most likely will, be avoided as long as cooler heads in Washington and Pyongyang prevail.

Security and international relations experts have long debated whether Kim Jong-un is a rational actor and if a nuclear North Korea obeys the same rules of deterrence that kept full-scale conflict at bay during the Cold War. Many firmly believe that North Korea can indeed be deterred, and that preventative military action is unnecessary and dangerous.

The key will be to keep communication and coordination between Seoul and Washington tight. Allowing North Korea or China (or even unrelated issues like the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement renegotiations) to drive a wedge between the two allies could provide enough confusion and uncertainty to allow a miscalculation to get out of hand.

The Impact of Sanctions on North Korea

One of the key issues for 2018 will be the impact of sanctions on the North Korean economy. Much of the international strategy for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs so far has been built around the strategy of using increasing economic pressure to bring North Korea to the negotiation table.

In 2016, North Korea’s economy was estimated to have grown nearly 4 percent despite increasing United Nations sanctions. Estimates for 2017 won’t be out until later this year, but the UN Security Council has passed four new resolutions imposing greater sanctions on Pyongyang and one would expect economic growth to slow. North Korea is now banned from exporting coal, which was its largest export item, as well as other goods such iron and lead ore, textiles, fish and agriculture products, wood, and machinery. The sanctions have also placed greater constraints on North Korean financial transactions and require all of North Korea’s overseas laborers to be sent home in one year. The vast majority of North Korean exports have been banned and limits have been placed on oil exports to North Korea.

As a result of the sanctions, North Korean exports to China are down $573 million compared to 2016 through November of last year. Most of the decline has come towards the end of 2017 when many of the sanctions began to come into effect. Will sanctions continue to lead to a decline in North Korea’s official trade? Will North Korea be able to increasingly evade sanctions as it appears to with reports of Russian and Chinese ships transferring oil to North Korea in violation of UN sanctions? Will the sanctions begin to have a significant impact on the North Korean economy, perhaps in the form of a currency crisis, that will begin to place pressure on the regime to enter into talks on its weapons programs? The new year should give us some insight into these questions.

The Advancement of North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Programs

North Korea displayed disturbing advancements in missile and nuclear technology in 2017, including three successful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests and a nuclear test in September showing North Korea’s highest yield yet. Each successive ICBM test conducted by Pyongyang demonstrated greater altitude and reach, with the most recent test in November estimated to be capable of hitting anywhere within the United States.

Despite a new series of UN sanctions passed in 2017 aimed at curbing North Korea’s weapons progress, 2018 will likely see North Korea continue to test the international community and demonstrate further advances in their weapons technology. Although North Korea established its ICBM advances in the past year, North Korea has yet to display missile re-entry capability, which would be a critical part of the country’s ability to launch a potential attack. North Korea may also seek to conduct more satellite tests and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) tests to emphasize the regime’s expanded weapons capabilities, as well as expand its stockpile of missiles and warheads.

The 2018 Winter Olympics

The 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics will be the second time that South Korea has hosted the Olympic Games after it held the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. This will also be the first of three consecutive Olympic Games held in East Asia with the 2020 games to be held in Tokyo and the 2022 games to be held in Beijing. In regards to local hopes for Olympic glory, South Korean athletes have traditionally had a dominant presence in speed skating, and a predictive analysis by Gracenote currently estimates another strong performance in the sport with a projection for South Korea to finish sixth in the overall Gold Medal count.

Despite local enthusiasm for the Games, lagging ticket sales have been attributed to international concerns over North Korea’s provocative behavior. In a New Year’s address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un voiced openness to North Korea’s participation in the Winter Games. In response, South Korean officials have proposed talks to discuss North Korea’s involvement next week, which if obtained would be a significant development for South Korea and its hope to reassure a worried international audience. North Korea’s participation would also be a huge political win for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who campaigned on improving inter-Korean relations through dialogue and convinced the United States to postpone annual exercises until after the Olympics.

Special Measures Agreement/Burden Sharing

President Donald Trump recently reiterated his campaign rhetoric and long-held belief that the U.S. “defends nations that are very wealthy, and we do it for almost nothing.” In this same speech in Missouri, President Trump relayed his conversations on defense burden sharing with a “couple of countries” during his recent trip to Asia that he believes are “getting away with murder and they got to start helping us out.”

Ever since 1991, the Republic of Korea (ROK) has provided some financial support to offset the cost of stationing U.S. troops on the peninsula. In 2016, General Vincent Brooks testified before the U.S. Senate that South Korea pays approximately 50 percent of the total non-personnel costs of the U.S. troop presence on the peninsula. Under the current SMA, Korea’s annual payment (in won) increases by the rate of inflation. In preparation for the President’s November trip to Asia, the White House highlighted Camp Humphreys as a “great example of burden sharing.” In the same testimony cited above, General Brooks confirmed that South Korea has paid about 91 percent of the cost of this base relocation.

In 2018, South Korea and the United States will negotiate a renewal of the Special Measures Agreement (SMA), which is set to expire later this year, to lay out the terms of the burden sharing arrangement for the next several years. As in most negotiations, both sides start off with their most extreme position. Over time, the two sides come together to reach an agreement.  SMA negotiations will be tough with the Trump administration. However, experienced personnel in the Defense Department will continue to recognize Korea’s immense contribution to the alliance (i.e., devotes 2.7 percent of its GDP to its own defense; has military draft; has, in the past, contributed its own troops to support the U.S. in other conflicts; and purchases a significant share of its imported military equipment from the U.S.) and will not let the SMA talks undermine the U.S.-ROK alliance.

U.S.-Korea Trade Policy

President Donald Trump continued his campaign rhetoric to criticize past U.S. trade policy, including the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), as a source of job loss and economic desolation in the United States.  He was on the cusp of withdrawing from KORUS and had the paperwork prepared to sign, but was persuaded at the last moment by other senior White House aides to not take this action and instead work towards negotiating changes to the underlying agreement.

However, the impetus for renegotiating KORUS – a rising bilateral merchandise trade deficit between the U.S. and South Korea since 2011 – has dissipated over the past 18 months as the U.S. experienced a significant decrease in the bilateral trade imbalance in its favor.  While Trump Administration officials have finally recognized this fact, the goalposts have been moved to find “permanent solutions, not temporary forbearance,” to keep the U.S.-ROK trade imbalance low and possibly turn it into a surplus based on the philosophy of “free, fair, and reciprocal” trade. Nonetheless, the Trump Administration may run into its own self-imposed roadblock by not seeking major alterations to KORUS that would require changes to U.S. law, thus avoiding the need to trigger Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) and approval by Congress.

With formal negotiations set to begin on January 5th, the same day as the release of next set of U.S. trade statistics for the month of November, some of the areas under possible amendments and modifications to KORUS are changes to Investor Settlement Dispute (ISD) process; elimination of more non-tariff barriers to U.S.-made vehicles; and reforms in areas of digital trade, privacy, and financial services.  Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also said that he hopes the KORUS renegotiation talks will go “quickly and smoothly” and that both sides will find “ways that work for all parties.”  If this solicitous spirit imbues the negotiation teams, an agreement can be found relatively soon.  However, if talks drag out because of unrealistic demands, this could have negative ramifications for other areas of the U.S.-ROK relationship.

Lastly, there are two other trade decisions in 2018 that could negatively affect South Korea with respect to U.S. government investigations into alleged “unfair” trade practices – (1) the Commerce Department study on the national security implications of imported steel is due on January 15th, with a presidential determination within 90 days to possibly issue higher tariffs as a tool to protect the U.S. steel industry (Korea represents the third largest source of imported steel for the U.S.) and (2) the President has until February 2nd to make a decision on possibly increasing tariffs on imported large residential washing machines made by Korean-owned companies LG and Samsung to protect Whirlpool (based in Ohio) from an alleged import “surge” (even though LG and Samsung will soon be manufacturing washing machines in the U.S., employing over 1,500 workers). Decisions to increase tariffs could prove to be additional irritants in the U.S.-ROK relationship, and could mar the KORUS talks.

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

In the summer of 2016, China began taking steps to apply economic pressure on South Korea over Seoul’s decision to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. By 2017, China was informally sanctioning South Korea’s tourism, entertainment, and auto industries, as well as Lotte directly for providing the land on which was deployed.  Altogether, the economic losses to South Korea from China’s boycott have approached $10 billion.

At the end of October, South Korea and China announced that they had agreed to normalize economic ties. While Beijing had insisted that the dispute would not truly be over until South Korea made the appropriate decision on THAAD, it looked at the time as though the two sides had agreed to disagree as China partially lifted its ban on group tours to South Korea. It was not meant to be. A little more than a month later it appears that China has re-imposed the tourism ban, and while South Korean automotive sales have improved in China it looks as though the retaliation over THAAD is set to continue into 2018. Rather than lifting its economic pressure on South Korea, look for China to moderate it over 2018 but to not completely lift its economic pressure.

Moon Jae-in’s Promised Economic Reforms 

The South Korean economy is projected to grow over 3 percent in 2018, led by recovering global trade expectations. However, the key issue to watch this year in the Korean economy is how effective the administration’s reform agenda will be in spurring domestic demand. Moon’s social and economic reform platform arguably won him the presidency and his implementation of it so far has sustained his high approval ratings. The popularity of Moon’s strategy stems from its rejection of past policies, reversing conventional economic thought by arguing job creation leads to growth.

Perhaps the most consequential advancement of the agenda thus far came was the budget passed by the National Assembly in December. The budget increased social welfare spending and created around 9,500 new public-sector jobs, both are major steps towards achieving Moon’s lofty goals.

While this new path could help to address Korea’s widening social problems and boost the domestic economy as a portion of overall GDP, it is still largely unproven. Whereas 2017 laid the groundwork for Moon’s ideas to be enacted, 2018 will be prove crucial in determining their success and sustainability. All of this could however be moot if burgeoning household debt is not reigned in.

South Korean Local Elections

South Korean domestic politics will face another bumpy road in 2018. The June 13th local election will be the Moon Jae-in Administration’s first major political event and a litmus test for Moon’s first year. It could also change the political landscape for next four years.

With Moon’s continuous high approval rate, the Democratic Party of Korea has a strong advantage over its opponents. According to the Korea Times’ New Year public opinion poll, an overwhelming majority in Seoul, Busan and Gyeonggi providence said they will support Moon and the ruling party in upcoming local election.

However, opposition parties are hoping to flip the political tide in their favor. Ahn Cheol-soo, the leader of the People’s Party and the Bareun Party leader Yoo Seun-min have been pushing for their parties’ merger to attract the votes of centrists and moderate conservatives. Whether the synergy from the merge will be strong enough to make them the main opposition party ahead of Korea’s Liberty Party is debatable.

The major race to watch out for the June election will be the Seoul mayor’s race. The incumbent, Park Won-soon, will be the first Seoul Mayor in history to run for the third term. According to DongA Ilbo survey, Park has overwhelming support over other potential candidates.

With five months left until the election, there is a plenty of time for unexpected changes.

Hallyu’s Ongoing Rollercoaster Will Continue

The last year was one of extremes for Korean pop culture overseas. Starting in 2016 and continuing throughout 2017, the market for Korean cultural content in China began to dry up amid formal and informal boycotts over THAAD. After years of Hallyu fever in China, concerts by Korean artists and endorsement contracts for Korean celebrities have become few and far between.

Meanwhile, though, boy band BTS may have achieved what was once deemed impossible – breaking into the mainstream American market. After appearances on the American Music Awards and The Ellen Show, BTS topped off the year with a performance at Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, and broke their own record for the longest run by a k-pop group song on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.

In 2018, expect more of the same for both these phenomena. Even if China lifts some restrictions this year, Korean entertainment companies will likely be reluctant to rush back into the Chinese market. In fact, some groups with a stronghold in China such as EXO, who releases all their music in both Korean and Mandarin, have shifted toward more Japanese releases.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen where BTS’s success in the United States will take them, and whether their popularity will open doors for more mainstream interest in other k-pop acts.

And finally one bonus issue:

Will There Be Constitutional Reform?

President Moon Jae-in has promised to reform the South Korean Constitution and intends to hold a referendum on proposed changes in conjunction with local elections in June.  The 1948 Constitution has been amended nine times, with the biggest change in 1987, when presidency was changed to a single five-year term.  A two-thirds majority in the National Assembly will be required to pass the constitutional reform bill that would then be put to the referendum.

Although there is consensus that the current Constitution grants too much power to the President, there is no agreement on how to curb the President’s powers.  Suggestions include: introducing a four-year, two-term Presidency; increasing the powers of the Prime Minister, perhaps by making the Prime Minister responsible for domestic policy while leaving foreign and security policy to the President; giving greater autonomy to regional and local governments, perhaps in the areas of education and local finance; creating a system for ballot initiatives and a recall system for National Assembly Members to strengthen “direct democracy”; and changing the system of National Assembly elections to increase the influence of smaller parties.  President Moon, formerly a human rights lawyer, has also said that he is interested in strengthening human rights provisions of the Constitution.

The first half of 2018 will see a strong push for agreement on Constitutional revisions in time for a June referendum.  If the parties cannot agree on a proposal, Constitutional reform will become an issue for the 2020 National Assembly elections.

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, Jenna Gibson 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 Jenna Gibson. Photos from William Proby and Korea Net on flickr Creative Commons, and from Wikimedia Commons.

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2017 in Review: A Critical Year for the Korean Peninsula

By Troy Stangarone

In 2017, much of the world’s attention turned to the Korean Peninsula. South Korean politics underwent major changes as President Park Geun-hye became the first South Korean president to be removed from office and a snap election was held in May that saw the election of Moon Jae-in. North Korea also dominated the news as Kim Jong-un followed through on his promises to test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and has raised concerns over the prospect of military action on the Korean Peninsula as North Korea has advanced its programs more quickly than many expected.

The changes in South Korean politics and North Korea’s progress on weapons development on their own could mark 2017 as a major turning point on the peninsula. However, we also saw the United States threaten to withdraw from the KORUS FTA and China perhaps put more pressure on South Korea over THAAD than North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. 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 2017 blog.

Looking back, we largely touched on what would be the key issues on the Korean peninsula in 2017. Though, in the case of burden sharing we may have been a year too early and there are reasons to believe late in 2017 that our prediction on relations between South Korea and Japan while right for 2017 may be challenged in 2018. Areas where we could have done better include more of a focus on North Korea’s desire to try and complete much of its weapons testing in 2017, how nations in East Asia would react to the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the impact that the impeachment of Park Geun-hye would have on the leadership of South Korean chaebol. With that said, here’s a brief look back at the 10 issues we highlighted and what happened:

  1. Political Dynamics and the Presidential Election in South Korea

The impeachment of Park Geun-hye and the subsequent election of Moon Jae-in as president were two major events in South Korean politics in 2017. While the snap election won by Moon resulted in a victory for the leading contender rather than an upstart candidate hoping to take advantage of shifts in the South Korean political scene, it did see the rise of populism in South Korea as we have seen in much of world over the last couple of years. The difference being that populism in South Korea is being driven by the left rather than the right. While Moon’s election could have resulted in shifts in policy towards North Korea and Japan, he has largely represented continuity through his endorsement of President Trump’s policy of maximum pressure and his efforts to separate historical issues from policy more broadly with Japan. Though, he has moved to give the government a greater role in job creation in South Korea.

  1. The Trump Administration’s Foreign and Security Policy in East Asia

Despite campaign rhetoric that accompanied President Trump’s run to the White House, U.S. foreign and security policy towards East Asia has remained largely the same. Much of the strong rhetoric about the need for allies to contribute more to their defense has remained, but the broader U.S. policy in the early part of the Trump Administration seems to have largely remained in place. The most significant difference to date may have come in the rhetoric designed to describe the Administration’s policy. The Trump Administration has decided to move away from using the Obama Administration’s Asia Rebalance to a new Indo-Pacific strategy, but it is unclear how different the policy will be in reality. Though, we could see greater differences in 2018 as negotiations on burden sharing with South Korea will need to be completed and North Korea’s

  1. Trump Administration Asia Economic Policy

If U.S. foreign and security policy in East Asia has largely remained consistent, the same cannot be said of U.S. economic policy. Trade policy was the one area where it was clear President Trump intended to make changes. On the first day of the new Administration, President Trump followed through on his promise to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and shift from the use of multilateral trade agreements to bilateral trade agreements to advance U.S. interests. The Trump Administration has also pushed to renegotiate the U.S.-Korea (KORUS) FTA, which President Trump has consistently referred to as a “horrible” trade agreement and only North Korea’s nuclear test in September may have convinced the Trump Administration to renegotiate rather than withdraw from the agreement. It has also taken steps to use more U.S. trade remedies to push a harder line with China on its trade practices.

  1. North Korean Behavior in Response to a New Political Environment

Despite announcing in his New Year’s Day address that North Korea was close to conducting an ICBM test, North Korea did seem to display some hesitancy in its testing in 2017 as it adjusted to the new Trump Administration in Washington, DC and there have been indications that Pyongyang is confused by Washington’s new policies. At the same time, North Korea did not conduct as many missile tests around the U.S.-South Korean military exercise in the spring and delayed conducting its first ICBM test until July. However, by the middle of the year North Korea seems to have determined that the new Administration would not be a break on its behavior and proceeded to conduct missile tests at roughly the same rate as in 2016.

  1. Will North Korea be a Trump Administration Priority?

It was clear before the Trump Administration came into office that dealing with North Korea would be a foreign policy priority, but less so where it would rank in terms of priorities, especially given candidate Trump’s focus on China. However, addressing North Korea’s nuclear program has become the Trump Administration’s top foreign policy priority because of both the maturity of North Korea’s weapons programs and the growing threat they represent to the U.S. homeland and the region. As a result, President Trump has lessened economic priorities that he campaigned on, such as addressing trade with China, and offered Beijing a better deal on trade if it helped the United States deal with North Korea.

  1. Are Sanctions Working?

This was one of the key questions for 2017 and will remain a top issue in 2018. Are sanctions working on North Korea? Sanctions have taken a toll as exports to China have fallen by $410 million through October compared to the same period in 2016 and some countries have begun completely cutting off trade, but they have created no discernable change in North Korea’s testing or willingness to return to talks. However, concerns we had at this time last year that there may be a turn away from sanctions have not yet come to pass. While some of the presidential candidates in South Korea had expressed a desire to reverse course on sanctions with North Korea, Pyongyang’s continued missile test and hydrogen bomb test have closed any avenue for engagement and a lessening of sanctions, easing those concerns. Though, there has been an increasing consideration of the use of military force in the United States to solve the North Korean nuclear issue.

  1. Special Measures Agreement/Burden Sharing 

Because of the focus on this issue by candidate-Trump we had an expectation that it could come to the fore in 2017. Asides from the occasional rhetorical flash, it didn’t. However, in 2018 the United States and South Korea will need to conclude a new Special Measures Agreement to determine the level of burden sharing in the alliance. This may just be an issue deferred.

  1. Will RCEP Be Finalized in 2017?

One of the expectations for 2017 was that if President Trump followed through on his pledge to withdraw from the TPP, it would help spur the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to conclusion and help to provide China with a platform for supplanting the United States’ leadership in East Asia on economic issues. While China has sought to supplant the United States on trade, RCEP remains unconcluded and rather than withering the TPP is very much alive. The remaining members under Japanese and Australian leadership have sought to conclude the agreement and leave open the door to a U.S. return in the future. The regional response to the United States on trade has not played out how one would have expected.

  1. Will the Korean Wave Continue?

The Korean Wave, or Hallyu, continued to grow in 2017 despite Chinese retaliation over THAAD. China is a key market for Hallyu content and products. As a result of THAAD, China prohibited the streaming of new K-dramas and banned group tours to South Korea where Chinese tourists purchase large amounts of Hallyu related products such as K-beauty. Both of these actions cut into profits from Hallyu, but there was also significant growth of K-beauty product exports to China as Chinese customers sought to make up for the loss of purchases from their trips to Seoul. While China’s measures have clearly cut into Hallyu, it has seen increasing success outside of China. One of the biggest new hits on U.S. TV, The Good Doctor, is the export of a South Korean drama and the growing enthusiasm for Hallyu can be seen at KCONs around the world as well as in the American TV debut of boy band BTS, who will be ringing in the new year in Times Square along with the world’s biggest artists. While China’s THAAD retaliation clearly represented a challenge to Hallyu, it continues to thrive.

  1. Relations Between South Korea and Japan

The relationship between South Korea and Japan has developed largely as we expected. The 2015 agreement regarding the Comfort Women remains unpopular in South Korea and President Moon has said the South Korea could not “emotionally” accept the agreement. However, in contrast to the Park Administration the Moon Administration has worked to separate historical issues from other issues in the relationship. Shortly after his election President Moon spoke with Prime Minister Abe about North Korea and the two have met in a summit meeting during APEC and the trilateral meeting with President Trump on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. While the growing threat from North Korea, along with President Moon’s reluctance to date to call for the Comfort Women deal to be revised or scrapped, has likely helped to maintain ties, a South Korean commission recently concluded that the agreement did not adequately take into account the views of the Comfort Women and could challenge this balance in the new year.

Beyond the events that we expected, here is a look at some of the unexpected events that helped to shape 2017:

  1. North Korea’s Nuclear Successes

After a series of Musudan missile failures in 2016, few would have expected the progress shown by North Korea in 2017. However, 2017 saw Pyongyang make significant progress as it introduced the Hwasong 14 and 15 models for its three successful ICBM tests. Also, more than a year after claiming the successful test of a hydrogen device, North Korea successfully conducted it first test of a hydrogen bomb. While North Korea’s successes to-date may not quite complete their tests as Kim Jong-un indicated, they have brought North Korea significantly closer to being able to strike the U.S. homeland than many would have thought possible in 2017.

  1. How Sanctions on North Korea have Changed

Prior UN sanctions on North Korea were designed to prevent North Korea from acquiring the technology that it needed to advance its nuclear weapons and missile development, but that began to change in 2017. While UN sanctions in 2016 began to move in this direction with caps on the export of coal, sanctions in 2017 prohibited the export of most of North Korea’s minerals, textiles, fish, and basic items such as wood products. They also began to cut into North Korea’s earnings from the export of labor to foreign countries by requiring that all workers return to North Korea in the next year and prohibiting future work contracts. In essence, the sanctions on North Korea have moved from a stage of punishment and deterrence to one of coercion.

  1. The Impact of Scandal on the Chaebol Leadership

The impeachment of Park Geun-hye has also had a significant impact on the leadership of South Korea’s chaebol who became embroiled in the scandal, but also left mixed signals. When the scandal first broke there was hopes that the history of the South Korean legal system going light on the heads of chaebol would have changed. Lee Jae-yong, the head of Samsung, was found guilty of giving bribes to Choi Soon-sil in the Park scandal and now faces 12 years in prison. However, there are now indications that may not be the case. Many of the key figures of the family behind Lotte were also convicted in the scandal, but given suspended prison sentences. The Lotte case indicates that the change many hoped for may not be the case and next year we will learn whether Lee Jae-yong’s sentence is also reduced and suspended or if he is faces jailtime.

  1. China’s Retaliation Over THAAD

China never formally sanctioned South Korea over the deployment of THAAD, but it took steps related to Hallyu, tourism, Lotte, and other areas in an effort to pressure the South Korean government to reverse its decision over THAAD. While there seemed to be an agreement to return to normal, China has only partially reversed its economic pressure over THAAD and indicated that it will only completely do so once the missile defense system has been reversed. However, through October, the economic costs to South Korea from the deployment of THAAD are likely over $9 billion, while North Korea has only seen its exports to China decline by $410 million.

  1. The Assassination of Kim Jong-nam

While not taking place directly on the Korean Peninsula, the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s older half brother Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia was one of the year’s most surprising events. Not only did North Korea take out a potential rival to Kim Jong-un on foreign soil, but it did so using VX nerve gas raising concerns about North Korea’s potential use of chemical and biological agents in addition to its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

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

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

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Koreans read the Seoul Daily newspaper

South Koreans Consider Nukes, But Japan Remains an Unknown Variable

By Hwan Kang

Massive protests erupted in South Korea prior to President Donald Trump’s visit to South Korea organized by both opponents and supporters of the U.S. president. Of note, the Korean supporters of Trump called for the deployment of nuclear weapons in South Korea, even though it had already been ruled out by the United States. Those who opposed calls for nuclear weapons deployment in South Korea did so in the name of peace and denuclearization. As can be seen in this case, the nuclear armament issue has become the center of political conflicts in South Korea. Supporters of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula still relate the issue with President Trump despite his administration’s opposition because they identify politically with conservatives. Progressives oppose such calls from conservatives out of fear of potential nuclear war on the peninsula, in some cases extending the argument to demand termination of sanctions on North Korea and the withdrawal of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system.

Public Sentiment in South Korea over Tactical Nuclear Deployment

While such protests may portray the situation as a clash of equal political forces, the polls actually show a different picture when it comes to developing nuclear weapons in South Korea. According to Gallup Korea, when people were asked if they agreed with South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons after the 6th nuclear test by North Korea last September, 60 percent of the respondents agreed while 35 percent disagreed. In the past, when Gallup Korea conducted a poll on the same question after North Korea’s nuclear tests, the result mostly came out in favor of Korea acquiring nuclear weapons. Of course, such analysis can be seen as unrepresentative, as these numbers only represent public sentiment when tensions were high on the Korean Peninsula.


Similar survey results have come out in a poll done by Korea Society Opinion Institute (KSOI) concerning the issue of tactical nuclear deployment. The KSOI poll showed that 68.2 percent of the respondents answered that South Korea needs tactical nuclear deployment for defense against North Korea, while 25.4 percent answered that the country does not need deployment as “it will worsen South-North relations.” Conservative political leader Hong Jun-pyo uses this polling data as the basis for his petition campaign for tactical nuclear deployment, claiming to have gathered five million signatures in support. However, the same polling data has also indicated that 50.1 percent of the respondents prefer diplomatic means to denuclearize North Korea, while 47 percent preferred military actions. Therefore, it would be hasty to conclude based on this polling data that South Koreans want to quickly bring in or develop nuclear weapons, and more discussion among South Koreans would be needed before any action is taken.

Nuclear Arms in Korean Peninsula and Japan

Henry Kissinger recently commented that the call for the nuclear arming of South Korea to match North Korea may be a part of a trend towards more nuclear proliferation in East Asia. North Korea is certainly at fault for starting this concern. However, there is no guarantee that South Korea’s reaction to the predicament will not play an important role in influencing neighboring country’s behavior. If the call for nuclear armament in South Korea persists, whether through tactical deployment or domestic development, it may reinforce the already strong political rationale for Japan to follow suit – a fact that is very much on the minds of South Koreans after the successful reelection of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, who supports an expanded defense force in Japan. Additionally, Western media aggravates the sentiment by hinting that both countries have not yet ruled the nuclear development out in their future plans.

However, one of the biggest variables to consider in such a dismal proliferation scenario is Japan’s inherent fear of nuclear war, along with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) that both countries have signed. Japan has persistently opposed nuclear armament both in their country and on the Korean Peninsula. In a July 2017 joint poll done by Genro NPO on  the North Korea military crisis and nuclear deployment in South Korea and Japan, 74 percent of Japanese respondent disagreed with the prospect of Japan acquiring nuclear weapons. The number almost matches the percentage of Koreans who disagree with the nuclear armament of Japan. It is actually the Koreans who have a strong inclination towards acquiring nuclear weapon inside their own country, according to the same poll. Nearly 70 percent of Koreans answered that they agree with possession of nuclear weapons in South Korea, while 80 percent of the Japanese disagreed with the idea.

Of course, to get a more accurate glimpse of South Korean sentiments while considering the Japan variable, it is important to ask additional questions such as “would you still agree to the development of nuclear weapons in South Korea if it meant Japan would also acquire nuclear weapons?” The question is frequently raised by various media and experts, some considering it as a valid worry that will concern Koreans, while others argue that Japan would understand the predicament and not go nuclear.

Such ramifications illustrate that the deployment of nuclear weapons in South Korea is not simply a question of deterrence against North Korea as some might want to believe. There should also be more frequent polling to gauge evolving public opinion on the issue, as the public may not have taken into account major events such as President Moon’s full explanation regarding his disapproval of deploying nuclear weapons in South Korea after the above-mentioned polls were being conducted. As a result, South Korea should not act rashly the name of security because its decision and potential consequences will not be confined only within its borders.

Hwan Kang is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America as part of the Asan Academy Fellowship Program. He is also a student of Seoul National University in South Korea. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Image from Luke Shin’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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State Sponsor of Terrorism Designation: Another Important Step in Isolating North Korea

By Donald Manzullo

Today U.S. President Donald Trump made an important and necessary step forward in dealing with North Korea by putting the country back on the U.S. State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST). North Korea now sits with Sudan, Syria and Iran as countries that the U.S. considers to have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.”

According to the State Department, “North Korea was designated as an SST in 1988 primarily on the basis of North Korea’s involvement in the bombing of a Korean Airlines passenger flight in 1987.”

In 2008, I was a member of the Asia and the Pacific Subcommittee in the House of Representatives. We were briefed by the Bush Administration, which wanted to delist North Korea to show good will on the part of the U.S. in trying to reach a denuclearization agreement. We were also advised that the designation could be reinstated at any time if North Korea resumed its provocative behavior. However, North Korea squandered that good faith almost immediately, reneging on their agreements and continuing to build their nuclear program to the dangerous point it has reached today.

North Korea should have been placed back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism the moment they broke that deal. But while the designation is a long time coming, it is heartening to see the Trump Administration doing everything possible to call out North Korean crimes for what they are, and to cut off every avenue of solace for the Kim regime in the international community.

This move puts the United States on the right side of history when it comes to standing up to the North Korean regime. Kim Jong-un and his father Kim Jong-il before him have committed countless crimes against humanity against their own people both domestically and abroad. They have held Americans on trumped-up charges for political gain, and shelled South Korean territories, killing innocent civilians. This year’s callous murder of Kim Jong-nam in a crowded Malaysian airport using a banned chemical weapon is clearly the last straw when it comes to tolerating North Korea’s criminal behavior.

Along with this announcement earlier today, President Trump also indicated that the Treasury Department would be rolling out additional sanctions on North Korea later this week.

President Trump’s strategy on North Korea includes a deeper appreciation for the deplorable human rights violations that ordinary citizens in the DPRK face on a daily basis. President Trump spent a significant portion of his speech at the South Korean National Assembly earlier this month describing the horrible human rights situation in North Korea and calling on China to do more to stop the regime from abusing its people. In that speech, he even went so far as to call the North “a hell that no person deserves.”

It is time to fully recognize North Korea for what it is – a prison state where each citizen lives in constant fear for their lives and where freedom is an unknown concept. With the re-listing of North Korea as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, the United States takes an important step forward by saying that the regime’s crimes will no longer be tolerated.

Donald Manzullo is President and CEO of Korea Economic Institute and former Member of U.S. Congress (1993-2013). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Tom Frohnhofer’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Why South Koreans Keep their Cool about North Korea while Americans Grow More Alarmed

By Juni Kim

North Korea shocked the international community on July 28th when it launched an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) that demonstrated the rogue nation’s ability to reach the continental United States. The missile launch was followed by North Korea’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test on September 2nd. U.S. President Donald Trump responded to recent actions like these with heated rhetoric, including at one point threatening North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

The recent string of events has not gone unnoticed by the American public, and many are increasingly concerned by the North Korean threat. A survey conducted in July by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs reported that 75% of Americans now view North Korea’s nuclear program as a critical threat, which increased from 60% in 2016 and 55% in 2015. Similarly, a CNN poll conducted by SRSS in August indicated that 62% of Americans say that North Korea is a very serious threat, which has grown substantially since early 2015 when only 32% thought so.

Despite growing American concerns over North Korea’s weapons capabilities, South Koreans have responded in a more sanguine manner in recent years and increasingly view war with North Korea as less likely. In response to the question over the possibility of North Korea starting a war, a series of Gallup Korea polls over time (as seen below) shows that 58% of South Koreans think that it is not possible compared to 37% that think it is possible. In over 25 years of poll results, the only period of time where South Koreans were more optimistic than the present day was during the “Sunshine Policy” years of the early 2000’s. In another Gallup International poll, South Koreans are similarly more doubtful of North Korean nuclear weapons use (59% say it is unlikely) compared to Americans (35% say it is unlikely).

Why do South Koreans remain relatively undaunted by North Korea while Americans grow increasingly anxious? There is no blanket reason that wholly explains the diverging trends, but differences in media coverage and South Korea’s lengthy and personal history with its northern counterpart both factor in how people in both countries think about North Korea.

There is an old saying in news that “if it bleeds, it leads,” and that type of mentality readily displays itself in U.S. media coverage of North Korea. In a study by KEI’s Director of Communications Jenna Gibson, the top three keywords in U.S. news headlines in 2016 about Korea are “nuclear,” “missile,” and “test.” All three words relate to North Korean provocations and highlight North Korea as a military threat. During a panel at KEI on North Korean media coverage last week, Kang In-sun, the Washington Bureau Chief at Chosun Ilbo, echoed how North Korean headlines in the U.S. gravitate towards more threatening stories. She stated, “Journalism is always pursuing sensationalism. They are more interested in war scenarios and military options than negotiations and dialogue. The situation is a little bit more exaggerated than it is.” In comparison, Dohoon Kim, Editor in Chief of HuffPost Korea, humorously noted how North Korea’s nuclear test in January 2016 quickly faded from headlines in South Korea. He recalled, “I’m not saying what happened wasn’t dangerous, but the fact is Koreans in less than a day have turned away from that news. To be honest, even the day it happened, people here didn’t make a huge fuss about it. For example, the most popular article during the last two days on HuffPost Korea was ‘Nine Things That Make Good Employees Quit.’”

The U.S. and South Korea also share two very different histories with North Korea that affect how they view the current North Korean crisis. Although North Korea has posed a critical threat to South Korea since its inception, the United States has only had to grapple with the concept of a direct North Korean threat recently when missile tests displayed the capability to reach American shores. In comparison, South Korea experienced multiple presidential assassination attempts by North Korean operatives, terrorist attacks, the bombing of South Korean cabinet members, the sinking of its military vessels, and other deadly incidents at the hands of North Korea for more than half a century. The recent developments in North Korea’s nuclear and missile technology is certainly troubling for South Koreans, but sadly only the latest chapter in a bitter decades-long conflict between the two Koreas.

It may be tempting to view South Koreans as having grown indifferent to the North Korean threat based on the poll numbers, but that would be an unfair and simplistic assessment. In a column for The Guardian, Haeryun Kang of Korean Expose suggested that South Korean attitudes to the North are much more complicated than it first seems. She explained, “The reality of South Korean ‘indifference’ is complex and even contradictory… Behind the indifference lies also years of fear, deep and even subconscious.” Having to live with a constant existential threat is unsettling, but it has been a fact of daily living in South Korea for as long as most South Koreans have lived. In other words, fear of a North Korean attack certainly exists in South Korea, but it has become in a sense normalized after decades of tense coexistence. The poll numbers also suggest that younger South Koreans are not as acclimated to the threat as older citizens. Of all age demographics, South Koreans in their 20’s indicated the most concern over North Korea with 53% saying it is likely that North Korea will use a nuclear weapon and 42% saying war is likely with the North.

There are certainly other factors in play as well, like caricatures of North Korea in U.S. media, and they are worth considering when analyzing the divide in public concern between America and South Korea. This is also not to say that North Korea should be treated lightly and not viewed as a serious threat to the United States. The developments in North Korea’s weapons capabilities over the past few years rightly demand the attention of the American public, but a problem like North Korea should be approached with rationality and not sensationalist belief.

Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Uri Tours’ photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Negotiating a Nuclear Deal with North Korea Just Got a Whole Lot Harder

By Troy Stangarone

If negotiating a nuclear deal with North Korea was already a fraught proposition, President Donald Trump’s decision to no longer certify the Iran nuclear deal despite Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) just made that prospect all the more difficult.

For decades one of the main obstacles to resolving the North Korean nuclear issue has been a lack of trust in North Korea’s ability to live up to an agreement. In the late 1990s the United States and North Korea negotiated the Agreed Framework to halt North Korea’s first push to develop a nuclear weapon and then under the Obama Administration the two sides negotiated the Leap Day Agreement to freeze North Korea’s ballistic missile tests. In both cases the agreements fell apart due to actions by North Korea.  Now the United States is taking actions in relation to the Iran nuclear agreement that raise questions about the United States willingness to live up to a negotiated agreement.

In the case of Iran, there is general agreement that it is in compliance with JCPOA. However, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) requires the president to certify not just that Iran is in technical compliance with the JCPOA, but also that the suspension of sanctions is “appropriate and proportionate” as well as in the U.S. national interests. It is on the basis that the current sanctions relief is not “appropriate and proportionate” to the steps that Iran has taken under JCPOA that President Trump decided to end certification, not on the basis of Iran’s compliance.

President Trump took this step over concerns centered on issues that the agreement was never intended to address such as Iran’s support for non-state actors such as Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as the regime’s continued ballistic missile tests. In doing so, he has moved to increase pressure on Iran over its broader behavior, but he has also raised questions about U.S. credibility in any efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korea.

The president’s decision does not mean that the United States has withdrawn from JCPOA. Instead, by refusing to certify Iran President Trump has thrown the issue back to Congress, which now has 90 days to decide whether to re-impose sanctions. The expectation is that Congress will not immediately impose sanctions, but rather work to make changes to INARA. However, should the Congress re-impose sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program the United States would be in violation of JCPOA.

With the agreement back in Congress’ hands, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker has put forward a proposal with the Trump Administration and Senator Tom Cotton to amend INARA. Under the proposal, U.S. sanctions on Iran would snap back into place if the intelligence community determined that Iran had taken steps to enhance its nuclear program that moved it under the one year breakout period for developing a nuclear weapon. It would also use the threat of re-imposing sanctions to remove the sunset clauses in JCPOA, strengthen verification, and limit Iran’s development of advanced centrifuges.

While all are worthy goals, in pursing changes through an amendment of U.S. law rather than new negotiations with Iran the Trump Admiration and Congress would in essence be seeking to unilateral rewrite the agreement. In fact, President Trump stated as much when he said that he would like to “make all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity permanent under U.S. law.” If the United States can simply redo significant provisions of an international agreement through its own domestic law, there is little incentive for North Korea to negotiate a deal with a country that will try to use its own laws to unilaterally rewrite an agreement even if North Korea lives up to its end of the bargain?

Beyond undermining U.S. credibility in talks with North Korea, refusing to certify Iran as part of an effort to negotiate better terms also signals to North Korea that any deal might be less advantageous than Pyongyang would be willing to accept. While pressure may bring North Korea back to the negotiating table, reaching an agreement with North Korea will require a tradeoff of benefits and risks on both sides. If the United States now wants better terms from Iran on the nuclear deal, a type of deal which North Korea has already indicated is unacceptable, decertifying Iran only moves the two sides potential negotiating positons further apart should talks become possible.

The decision on Iran also makes maintaining a unified international front with North Korea more difficult. U.S. credibility isn’t merely about North Korea’s willingness to trust the United States in any negotiations, but also that of our partners that the United States is working in good faith and that any agreement reached will be upheld as long as North Korea maintains the terms. If the United States cannot be trusted to keep its word should the political situation change, there is less incentive for countries such as China to bear the burden of sanctions to bring North Korea to the table.

At a time when the United States already faced a difficult nuclear crisis with North Korea, moving to unilaterally alter the Iran deal only complicates matters. The United States could now find itself dealing with two nuclear crises, more reluctance among allies and partners to help the United States, and a North Korea that has an additional reason to be skeptical of negotiating a deal with the United States, none of which are in the United States’ national interest.

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 Jen Morgan’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Contradictions in Trump’s UN Speech and Implications for North Korea Policy

By Troy Stangarone

As President Donald Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly for the first time he asserted the need for a strong role for national sovereignty in international relations, but also called on the United Nations to resolve the now imminent threat from North Korea. While the ideas of sovereignty and international cooperation need not be in contradiction with each other, the potential tension between the two raises questions about the future approach to resolving the crisis with North Korea, as does President Trump’s suggestion that he might walk away from the nuclear deal with Iran.

In his remarks to the UN General Assembly, President Trump laid out a potentially interesting definition of sovereignty, but one that the administration likely needs to flesh out and clarify. In Trump’s view sovereign nations have “two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.” This definition is in tension with the more established definition of sovereignty from the Treaty of Westphalia that defined sovereignty as the right of states to rule over their territory without interference from other states. There is no expectation for the state to act in the interest of its own people.

In essence, President Trump has augmented the idea of non-interference in the affairs of other states with the idea of the state having a duty to look after the interests of its people and takes a more limited view of modern day multilateralism. In his remarks, President Trump makes clear that the United States does not seek to impose its form of government on others, so the obligations of the state to its people are not tied to a form of government, but rather whether that government is working in the interests of its people.

However, President Trump also seems to suggest that if a state is not meeting its obligations to its population it does not maintain the second aspect of sovereignty – the obligation of other states not to interfere in its internal affairs. In the modern era, the idea of a more malleable version of sovereignty is not uncommon. The European Union functions on the concept of pooling sovereignty to collectively achieve a higher purpose and, hence, accepts a degree of interference in the authority of the state. Or, perhaps more in the context of the United Nations there is the concept of the Responsibility to Protect, where UN member states take on a responsibility to intervene in the affairs of other states to preclude genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other war crimes. It seems unlikely that President Trump wanted to lay out such an expansive concept of the ability of states to intervene in the affairs other states, but in assigning the interests of citizens as one of the duties of states President Trump does seem to be laying out groundwork for when states have failed in their duties and lost their sovereignty.

While President Trump’s remark that the United States was prepared to “totally destroy North Korea” if the United States has to defend itself or its allies, less attention has been given to his remark that this is exactly the type of problem that the United Nations was designed to resolve.  However, his approach to sovereignty seems to make a stronger case for the United Nations to take action on the issue of North Korea due to the regime in Pyongyang’s failure to look after the interests of its citizens rather than the dangers of its nuclear program. While there is clear international consensus that North Korea’s weapons programs are a danger to international peace and security, the emphasis on citizens interests and lack of clarity on where the rights of nations ends potentially complicates dealing with North Korea as it raises questions about whether resolving the nuclear issue is sufficient.

If President Trump’s use of sovereignty potentially complicates collective action on North Korea, his suggestion that the United States might not remain in the nuclear deal with Iran does as well. The Iran deal has been suggested as a potential framework for a deal with North Korea. While Pyongyang has rejected such an arrangement, it does likely represent the starting point for both sides to think about a potential solution. Pyongyang will likely seek a more generous arrangement than what Iran received, while the concerns expressed by the Trump Administration suggest that it would seek an agreement that addressed more issues than merely North Korea’s weapons programs.

However, getting to that point requires finding the political space to negotiate an agreement that would stop North Korea’s weapons development and roll back its capabilities, which has long been the goal of increased UN sanctions. To work, the United States needs to have credibility as a negotiating partner to achieve a negotiated outcome. Leaving the deal with Iran would raise questions about the credibility of the United States in any negotiations with North Korea, but would also reinforce the idea that any deal reached with the United States could simply be changed by any future U.S. administration.

It would also potentially complicate cooperation with states in the region. Any successful agreement requires the continued cooperation of China and Russia to maintain pressure on North Korea. If the United States is not viewed as a credible partner by Beijing in reigning in North Korea’s behavior, it lessens the incentives for China to maintain pressure on North Korea to enter into talks and for all sides to abide by any agreements reached.

In many ways, President Trump’s speech at the United Nations was not a provocative as many have suggested. While President Trump is known for using stronger language than prior U.S. presidents, his suggestion that the United States would forcefully retaliate against North Korean aggression is not inconsistent with prior U.S. administrations and his call for the UN to resolve the crisis have been underplayed. However, his own remarks also raise questions about achieving those ends. Does his vision of sovereignty and a state’s obligations to its citizens suggest greater change in North Korea than many other states may be looking for? Will the administration’s actions towards the Iran nuclear deal undermine efforts to reach a deal with North Korea? These are two key questions which the administration needs to flesh out to avoid creating contradictions in its own policies.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. A version of this article in Chinese also appeared in Dunjiaodu.com. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from United Nations Photo’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Trump at the UN: A Plea for Help on North Korea

By Mark Tokola

Within minutes of President Trump’s September 19 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, headline writers were irresistibly drawn to the President’s threat to “totally destroy” North Korea and his description of “Rocket Man” (aka Kim Jong-un) as being on a “suicide mission.”  But, the context of the tough talk was President Trump’s call on the United Nations membership collectively to pressure North Korea into abandoning its nuclear program – a call which must be premised on the idea that North Korea can still be stopped without military action.  It is premised on faith in the United Nations.  Trump thanked China and Russia for joining the recent, unanimous Security Council vote to impose tough sanctions on North Korea.  He called on all nations to stop enabling North Korea through trade and financial services.  Trump also reminded the General Assembly of North Korea’s appalling human rights abuses.

Some will interpret President Trump’s remarks on North Korea as moving the United States closer towards exercising a “military option,” and that may be partially true.  The threat to “totally destroy” a country is a step beyond the usual, “will respond to threats appropriately” diplomatic language.  But, no interpretation is necessary to hear what the President unambiguously stated, that North Korea poses a threat to international peace and security, and it is the responsibility of the United Nations and its member states to take steps to preserve peace and security.  North Korea does represent a unique threat.  It is the only nation to conduct nuclear tests in this century.  It is the only nation that gleefully produces videos of nuclear attacks on foreign countries (Washington D.C. and New York being recent subjects).  Kim Jong-un has threatened to turn South Korea into a sea of fire and “sink” Japan.  If that, combined with North Korea’s ICBM and nuclear testing and its international weapons proliferation, doesn’t represent a threat to international peace and security, it is hard to think what would.

President Trump’s United Nations speech seems, above all, to be a plea for help from the international community in dealing with North Korea.  He said, in essence, that the United States is capable of dealing with North Korea militarily, but the preference of the United States is a peaceful solution.  The means to achieve a peaceful solution requires international cooperation.  Trump essentially admitted that the United States alone, or acting in concert with its close allies including South Korea, cannot apply enough economic or diplomatic pressure to thwart North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.  The cooperation of all countries, including China and Russia, will be necessary to preserve the peace which North Korea threatens.  That is a realistic, non-unilateral, internationalist approach – tough rhetoric aside.

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

Photo from John Gillespie’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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About The Peninsula

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