Tag Archive | "security"

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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North Korea’s October 10 Parade

By Stephan Haggard

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

L’état, c’est moi

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

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

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

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

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

The Crisis Continues

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

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

Foreign Policy and the Weapons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Kim Yo Jong’s Statement Means for the Prospect of Renewed Nuclear Talks

By Stephan Haggard

Speculation about a pre-election surprise on North Korea has been bubbling to the surface in Washington, suggested by John Bolton no less. Not surprisingly, President Moon—with his fresh electoral mandate—has also been pushing a Kim-Trump summit. Now Kim Yo Jong has offered up her own reflection on the current state of diplomatic play.

The meandering, “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand” statement has been taken as a firm rejection of another summit, or even working-level talks, and contained the usual veiled threats. Yet the statement also sought to protect the personal relationship between Kim and Trump, teased that denuclearization was not impossible and aimed above all to entice the administration into a new offer. As such, it could be interpreted as an effort to calm the waters rather than a signal of looming escalation.

What did Kim Yo Jong actually say? Kim does not state definitively that talks are impossible; that will depend on “the judgment and decision between the two leaders.” But the statement does adopt the standard bargaining tactic of explaining why Pyongyang is not anxious to deal; that the U.S.—and the president–need an agreement more than North Korea does and that another photo op would be a waste of time.

The fundamental reason for Kim Yo Jong’s caution goes back to the embarrassing failure in Hanoi, described in some detail in Chapter 11 of John Bolton’s The Room Where it Happened. Ironically, the accounts by Bolton and Kim—if not their interpretations—align quite closely. Kim Yo Jong portrays the North as bringing a serious offer to the table in Hanoi, one that would have involved real concessions: trading some (ill-defined) movement on Yongbyon for relief from the most significant multilateral sanctions imposed through the Security Council since 2016. Bolton portrays Kim as clearly distressed by the fact that this offer was so roundly rejected, and Kim Yo Jong’s text hints at the embarrassment of Hanoi as well.

She argues, however, that during the “handshake” summit, Kim Jong-un warned President Trump that he would not revisit the Hanoi offer. Indeed, Kim Yo Jong suggests that the entire “action for action” framework, which North Korea has often advanced, is over before it ever really began. North Korea is at the present unwilling to trade partial moves on the nuclear front for sanctions relief. Rather, she argues that the parties should shift from such incrementalism to “a formula of ‘withdrawal of hostility versus resumption of negotiations.’”

Kim Yo Jong goes even further, however, suggesting that sanctions relief is not even a central objective of the Kim Jong-un regime. There are several possible reasons for such a bold claim, starting with the effort to show resolve and underline the capacity of the regime to withstand outside pressure. Under this interpretation, simply seeking sanctions relief—as in Hanoi—could be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

Yet an equally plausible interpretation is that Hanoi demonstrated the low likelihood of securing such a trade with the United States, particularly given disagreements within the administration on how to proceed. Why chase something you are unlikely to get?

What about the possibility that Kim Yo Jong is signaling her own pre-electoral surprise? A section of the speech addresses possible U.S. concerns that it will receive the “Christmas present” provocation that was promised—but not delivered—at the end of 2019. However, Kim Yo Jong goes to some pains to say that North Korea has no such intentions unless provoked. Rather she says that North Korea has not the “slightest intention to pose a threat to the U.S.,” that Kim Jong Un has assured President Trump on this score, and that “everything will go smoothly if they leave us alone and make no provocation on us [sic].”

The shadow boxing between the United States and North Korea often centers on efforts to put the ball in the other player’s court: to shift the onus for action. As with the long history of peace agreement and peace regime proposals, North Korea is doing that here. Yet Kim Yo Jong’s statement suggests that the parties probably view one another in surprisingly similar ways. Kim Jong-un sees little return for rushing into talks that are unlikely to yield any benefits, and is in any case unwilling to make concessions. And in the United States, it is not just John Bolton who sees little likelihood that North Korea will make meaningful offers. Where is the “win” for the president? The main message I see in Kim Yo Jong’s speech is that North Korea is playing out the clock; it will either resume the dance if Trump prevails or take its chances with a Biden administration.

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

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Understanding Intentions: A Response to James Brown

By Olga Krasnyak

I’d like to respond to Dr. James Brown’s recently published paper entitled ‘Putting a spoke in the wheel: Russian efforts to weaken U.S.-led alliance structures in Northeast Asia’ that he presented at KEI on 18 June 2020. Brown’s main argument is that Russia intends ‘to undermine the unity of Western alliances’ but more specifically – ‘to weaken the South Korean and Japanese alliances with the United States.’ While using the Russian-language sources to support his argument, Brown brings a number of examples illustrating Russia’s assertive behavior in Northeast Asia.

To be sure, there is no way to deny Russia’ belligerent behavior in the region as shown by the author. Yet, what is more important is to look at the situation from Russia’s perspective. In this case, understanding Russia’s intentions that are based on historical and geographical peculiarities of the country, its relations with neighbors and with major powers is key.

As represented in the paper, Brown’s arguments rather leaves an impression of the old-fashioned Russo-phobic rhetoric inherited from the Cold War period. Such rhetoric surely doesn’t weigh the main argument. However, to some extent, the Cold War narrative still navigates world politics and inter-state relations, and it’s here to stay for some time.

Assessing the article, my simple counter-argument is that Russia, as any other regional or global power, pursues its national interests and does not necessarily intend to deliberately harm the existing alliance structure in Northeast Asia. Moreover, if the U.S.-South Korea and U.S.-Japan alliances remain strong, there is nothing to fear to undermine them. If the U.S.-led alliance system in the region is showing elements of corrosion, pointing fingers and blaming Russia is a rather weak position considering domestic challenges within the alliance and the global shift towards multipolarity.

Diplomacy and derzhavnost’

As Brown rightly noted, diplomacy is a tool to implement a nation-state’s foreign policy objectives. Therefore, understanding Russia’s foreign policy is important to assess diplomatic means and ends. Historically, Russia’s foreign policy has been the pursuit of influence over Eurasia, including the Far East, reflected in the national idea derzhavnost’. Seva Gunitsky and Andrei Tsygankov, Russian-born political scientists based in Canada and U.S. respectively defined the term as ‘the state of possessing – and being recognized by others to possess – clear status as a great power.’ In other words, putting the national idea of derzhavnost’ at the core of Russian foreign policy explains that the country sees itself a great power and it seems there’s no option for Russia to reconsider this view any time soon.

As for South Korea and Japan – despite their economic and technological capabilities – Russia more than likely does not consider them geopolitical competitors. Instead, pure pragmatism and rationality to maintain friendly and beneficial relations with both neighboring countries remains Russia’s foreign policy objective through diplomacy.

Air incursions and military exercises

Air incursions and joint military exercises are another key point to which Brown refers in  characterizing Russia’s ill intentions. However, intrusions into the airspace of other countries or military exercises performed close to foreign territory is not something that Russia does exclusively. Such intrusions and exercises are the legacy of the Cold War and is the reflection of the security dilemma. In this case, the intrusions and exercises serve defensive purposes although they have a psychological effect – to animate danger, threat, and fear.

An American political scientist Ben Buchanan, in his book The Cybersecurity Dilemma (2017), describes how during the Cold War the U.S. practiced intrusions into the Soviet air space as what it thought was a benign defensive activity. The Soviets, however, perceived American intrusions as aggressive and viewed them as a serious threat. Buchanan cited one American pilot who recalled that “sometimes we would fly missions over the Black Sea … To tickle the Soviets a little and create more activity we would do a straight approach towards Sevastopol, turn and run out. Then we would listen to the racket” (p. 26).

Such intrusions led to tragedy in the different parts of the world. In 1983 the U.S. Navy conducted a massive military exercise in the North Pacific Ocean near the Kuril Islands, which was also often surveyed by American jets. It was an attempt to provoke a Soviet reaction with flights on or over the border, so that naval intelligence could study the response. Six American planes directly flew over Soviet military installations outraging the Soviets and prompting an angry Soviet diplomatic response. The incident built up Soviet anxiety that eventually led to tragedy when Korean Air Lines Flight 007 from New York to Seoul inadvertently entered Soviet airspace and was shot down destroying the airliner and killing all of the 269 passengers and crew aboard (p. 27).

In no way should one bring excuses or undermine the repercussions of such actions, but realistically the situation when a country uses air incursions or conducts military exercises along the borders of a country with adversarial intentions (i.e. U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises) to minimize the security dilemma, is a long-term practice continuously replicated by different countries at different times. Accusing only Russia of doing so, as Brown argues, sounds rather one-sided.

Plus, other recent events, such as the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Open Sky Treaty as well as from arms control arrangements negotiated with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, maximize the security dilemma and put countries to the rise of another arms race.

Information and public diplomacy

Brown pays special attention to Russia’s public diplomacy and information campaign. Once again, public diplomacy is not a new tool to promote a nation-state narrative among foreign audiences. Practices of public diplomacy are also rooted in the Cold War Era. In 1953, the U.S. created the United States Information Agency (USIA) to ‘tell America’s story to the world’ (for the detailed view and deeper analysis, see Nicholas J. Cull’s book on the USIA). In Korea, earlier in 1950, when communist North Korea invaded non-communist South Korea, the U.S. prepared not only a military response, but also launched battlefield propaganda and an explanatory information campaign around the world. As for Japan, during the decades of the Cold War, the USIA put a lot of effort into producing a massive amount of publications as well as commissioning films, music and other cultural media aiming to promote American culture.

To be sure, America’s public diplomacy slogan to influence hearts and minds of foreign publics – which may be outdated in its intended context – could relatively easily be adopted by any other power that has regional or global ambitions to promote its interests internationally. In this regard, Russia’s information campaign in Japan – to which Brown references – should not look unique, exclusive or threatening. Quite the opposite – those are well-developed practices as set by the USIA.

To sum up, Brown’s article makes an argument to prove that Russia has had bad intentions towards the United States and its allies in Northeast Asia. However, the evidence the author brings appears one-sided, with the facts taken out of their current and historical context. Nonetheless, the merit of the article is starting a discussion even though the conclusion of the article doesn’t suggest any solutions to minimize the negative outcome that Russia’s actions might cause as they are viewed by the author. As a suggestion, perhaps adding a diplomatic perspective if not to solve then to manage the ongoing problem by minimizing the security dilemma while trying to understand the other side’s intentions would have been more beneficial for the discourse.

Olga Krasnyak  is an Assistant Professor at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia.  The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

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

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North Korean Peace Proposals: A Long-run View

By Stephan Haggard and Liuya Zhang

Over the last thirty years, North Korea has periodically made reference to the importance of reaching a “peace agreement” or negotiating a “peace regime.” Most recently, The Panmunjom declaration suggested the parties might exchange denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula for a peace agreement (평화협정). The historic Trump-Kim summit made reference to “building a lasting and stable peace regime (평화체제) on the Korean Peninsula”; indeed the reference to a peace regime appeared in the summit document even before mention of denuclearization.

Although we have some sense of North Korean grievances vis-à-vis the United States—and vice versa—we do not have a very precise sense of what negotiations over a peace agreement or peace regime would look like, or even whether there is genuine North Korean interest. With few exceptions these terms have only rarely been attached to a very clear picture of what North Korea would like to see.

However, we can get some sense of North Korean intent by taking a broader look at the use of these terms over time.  To provide this longer-run view, we scraped 1305 articles published between January 1st, 1998 to December 31, 2019 in the KCNA.co.jp (Korean) Archive inside the KCNA Watch database,[i] restricting the search to the following Korean terms: 평화(보장)체제 (peace regime) and  평화협정 (peace agreement).[ii] We kept only articles that represented what we considered authoritative opinions, which we divided into “first-tier” commentary—from the supreme leaders themselves or institutions such as the National Defense Commission, Foreign Ministry or Supreme People’s Assembly—and “second-tier” commentaries from major state media, including Rodong Sinmun, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and others. This selection criteria left us with 327 articles, 120 first-tier and 207 second-tier.

An analysis of these statements, and their intended audience, suggests a pattern that is well-known to most Korea watchers. The term “peace agreement” is typically used in the context of negotiating the normalization of relations with the United States, implying a bilateral agreement that would address policy issues immediately under American control: the withdrawal of U.S. forces, suspension of exercises, the lifting of sanctions. A peace regime, by contrast, is a multilateral agreement among the four parties—South and North Korea, China and the United States—that would replace the armistice.

Figure 1 provides an overview of mentions of the two terms over time, and suggests several interesting patterns. Although there was some use of the term “peace agreement” during the Four Party Talks (1998-99), there was surprisingly little usage of these concepts during the period leading into the second nuclear crisis nor the heyday of the Six Party Talks. We did see a brief flurry of interest in reaching a non-aggression treaty (불가침조약) in 2003-4, at the outset of the Six Party Talks, when North Korea appeared preoccupied with getting security assurances that would carry the imprimatur of Congressional approval.

From 2005 through 2008 we see some increased usage of the terms as the Six Party Talks reached its short-lived apex in 2007-8. But during this period, North Korea seemed more focused on negotiating the quid-pro-quos around a nuclear agreement, including the lifting of sanctions, provision of heavy fuel oil and pursuit of a light-water reactor; thinking about a wider “mechanism” or regime was pushed off to later phases of the talks in the two roadmap agreements of 2007.

What is striking is that usage of the peace agreement and peace regime terms increases dramatically in 2010, and then spikes again in 2013, 2015 and 2018. Several hypotheses suggest themselves, and they are not altogether mutually exclusive. One hypothesis is that North Korea turned toward the peace agreement and peace regime proposals precisely as an alternative to the Six Party Talks, which were focused on denuclearization. Indeed, in important statements in 2009 and 2010, North Korea began to float the idea that reaching a peace agreement with the United States was a prerequisite for resuming the Six Party Talks.[iii]

A second hypothesis is that the new reference to a peace regime was designed to stabilize the external environment as the succession process went into high gear following Kim Jong-il’s likely stroke in August 2008.

We focus, however, on a third hypothesis. That at least until 2018, the floating of peace agreement and peace regime ideas is related to a stepped up cycle of provocations. These begin with the nuclear and missile tests of 2009, and go through the sinking of the Cheonan and Yeongpyong-do shelling in 2010, and the acceleration of nuclear and missile testing under Kim Jong-un.

Under this hypothesis, North Korea might float these ideas for two reasons. “Peace offensives” were designed to assign—or shift—blame for ongoing tensions to the United States and are issued prior to an escalation of tensions. “Pacifying campaigns” by contrast, seek to de-escalate and are undertaken after tensions rise. Under this more cynical view, peace agreement and peace regime ideas are not to be taken seriously; they do not necessarily reflect an interest in actually negotiating such agreements but are essentially strategic.

It is arguably hopeful that there was a spike in mentions of a peace regime in 2018 that was sustained into 2019. Prior to the Hanoi summit, hopes were raised of a grand bargain that might achieve the trifecta of a denuclearization agreement, a normalization of relations with the United States, and a wider peace settlement that would replace the armistice. Yet the Hanoi summit was a bitter disappointment for the Kim Jong-un regime, and it is noteworthy that since 2016 interest in a peace agreement with the United States has clearly waned. In the absence of a meaningful path back to talks with the United States, with North-South relations on ice, and with North Korea comfortable with its nuclear deterrent, even aspirational peace regime proposals may play a declining signaling role in the diplomacy around the peninsula.

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. Liuya Zhang is a master student at the School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California, San Diego. She received her Bachelor Degree of Arts from Fudan University and Master’s degree of International Studies from Seoul National University. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

Photo from White House photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

[i] Data source:


[ii] . We also searched for the term 평화조약 (peace treaty), but it’s usage was exceedingly rare and was used primarily in reference to peace treaties reached elsewhere beyond the Korean peninsula.

[iii] 로동신문 《평화보장체계수립이 급선무이다》, 23/11/2009, Source: KCNA.co.jp (Korean)

조선외무성 성명 평화협정회담을 제의Date: 11/01/2010 | Source: KCNA.co.jp (Kr)


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Shots Fired Across the DMZ—What Does It Mean?

By Robert R. King 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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How China and Japan View South Korea

By Mark Tokola

Genron NPO, a Japanese non-profit organization, released the results of an opinion survey in October 2019 that focusses on Japanese and Chinese perspectives of one another, but which also includes some nuggets about how the two countries perceive South Korea.  The survey was conducted by the Public Opinion Research Center in Japan and by the Horizon Research Consultancy Group in China.  For Koreanists, the most striking finding is the souring of Japanese public opinion towards South Korea, which is unsurprising given the state of relations between the two countries, but which the Genron survey confirms and quantifies.  China’s opinions regarding the two Koreas have held steady from 2018 to 2019, but Japan has come to feel less affinity towards South Korea, considers it less important for Japan’s interests, and believes South Korea’s influence in the region will decline over the next ten years.

The topline for Genron of their survey was that the Chinese public is taking an increasingly favorable view of Japan, whereas Japan’s view of China became only slightly less negative over the same period.  The percentage of Chinese who view Japan unfavorably fell steeply from 93 percent to 53 percent from 2018 to 2019.  The percentage of Japanese who view China unfavorably decreased only slightly from 90 percent to 85 percent.  From the Japanese perspective, the biggest obstacle to better bilateral relations are territorial issues (the Senkaku Islands and Chinese intrusions into Japan’s air and maritime space) followed by China’s “different political system.”  For China, territorial issues also are the biggest issue, followed closely by “Japan’s lack of a proper apology and remorse over its history of invasion into China.”  The Chinese and Japanese publics agree that their bilateral relationship is “important,” but are pessimistic about its future.  49 percent of the Chinese public expect a military conflict between the two countries, 23 percent of Japanese expect such a conflict.

Both the Chinese and Japanese publics considered their relationships with the United States to be their most important — more important than their relationship with each other.  Regarding South Korea, around 20 percent  of the Chinese public in both 2018 and 2019 said that China’s relationship with South Korea was more important that its relationship with Japan.  Around 45 percent say that China’s relations with Japan and South Korea are equally important.  Over the same period, there was a sharp increase in the percentage of Japanese respondents who said that Japan’s relationship with China was more important than its relationship with South Korea, from 23 percent to 31 percent.  The percentage of Japanese who believe that Japan’s relationship with China and South Korea are equally important fell from 53 to 43.

Regarding areas for bilateral cooperation between China and Japan, the most important for Japan is dealing with the North Korea nuclear issue followed closely by cooperation on the environment.  The Chinese public thought the two countries should cooperate primarily on strengthening bilateral trade and investment, followed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.  Renewable energy was a close third.

The Genron survey asked about “affinity” with other countries separately from their importance. Japanese affinity towards South Korea dropped from 26 percent to 17 percent.  That compares to Japanese affinity towards the United States at 50 percent and towards China at 5 percent.  Chinese affinity towards the United States was 17 percent, and towards Japan 12 percent.  Those numbers held steady over the course of the year.  China does not feel much affinity for any foreign country.

There was a question in the Genron survey asking whether the influence of various countries will change over the next ten years in regarding to Asia.  Over 80 percent of the Chinese and Japanese see U.S. influence as either increasing or holding steady over the next decade.  71 percent of Chinese believe that South Korea’s influence will increase or hold steady, but only 39 percent of Japanese believe that.  They believe South Korea is the country most likely to decrease in influence in Asia over the next ten years.

China and Japan unsurprisingly perceived threats to their security coming from different directions.  The countries that Japan considers as posing a security threat were: North Korea (85 percent), China (58 percent), Russia (36 percent), South Korea (23 percent), and the United States (10 percent).  For China, the threats come from: Japan (75 percent), the United States (74 percent), India (17 percent), Vietnam (17 percent), Russia (16 percent), South Korea (12 percent), and North Korea (10 percent).  It would be interesting to see which countries South Korea finds most threatening, but that was outside the scope of the Genron survey.

Finally, another informative question from the survey in regard to South Korea asked the Chinese and Japanese which countries they believe should participate in a potential multilateral framework for security in Northeast Asia.  For China, the list was short.  The only countries that rated over 40 percent were China, the United States, Japan, and Russia.  South Korea trailed at 31 percent, and North Korea at 26 percent.  For the Japanese a high percentage of the public said that a regional security framework should include, in order: China, Japan, South Korea, the United States, Russia, North Korea, and India.  Indonesia, Mongolia, and Australia all rated over 25 percent.  There was a sharp disparity between the low level of support in China for including South Korea in a security framework (31 percent), and the very high level of support in Japan for including it (80 percent).  Japan may have low affinity for South Korea, but considers it important for its security.

What can be drawn from the data?  First, the disputes between the governments of Japan and South Korea seem to be having a corrosive effect on the Japanese public’s perceptions of South Korea, at least in the short term.  On the other hand, the Japanese public firmly believes that the biggest threat to their security comes from North Korea and believes, much more strongly than China, that South Korea should be part of a potential multilateral security framework.  This suggests that the government of Japan would find public support for an effort to improve relations with Seoul.  The survey results are a reminder that over time relations between South Korea and Japan have had their highs and lows (regrettably, more of the latter) but the two countries know they need each other.

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

Image from RICO Lee’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Steady Improvements in Gender Equality

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

What Happened

  • The share of parental leave taken by fathers increased from 1.4 percent in 2009 to 21.2 percent in 2019.
  • According to a survey, 43.2 percent of respondents said they saw a reduction in gender discrimination during last year’s Chuseok holiday; however, 39.3 percent of respondents also saw no changes.
  • Female participation rate in the South Korea military rose from 5.5 percent to 6.8 percent last year. The South Korean government aims to increase the figure to 8.8 percent by 2022.
  • In November, the South Korean military promoted Kang Sun-young to a two-star general, the first woman to hold this rank.
  • The National Assembly passed a new law requiring large companies to have at least one woman on its board of directors.

Implications: Without waiting for voluntary changes in societal attitudes towards gender equality, the South Korean government is spearheading a series of progressive laws that are delivering modest but important advances. Developments in the past ten years suggest that measures such as male parental leave have had an impact on traditional concepts around gender roles. More men are participating in what had been traditionally viewed as a woman’s job, including food preparations during holidays and childcare. Simultaneously, women are also taking on jobs that were conventionally seen as a male occupation. Female participation rate in the military is rising and may experience stronger growth when more female officers rise to positions of authority and demonstrate that the military is a viable career for women.

Context: Although there are promising signs that gender equality is improving, South Korea still has a long way to go. The gender wage gap in South Korea is one of the highest among the OECD countries. Some young Korean women refuse to marry and have children due to the discrimination women face in a traditional family. Furthermore, non-traditional gender issues are still largely neglected. Report of a 1.3% increase in female participation in the military followed the discharging of a trans-woman from the military for transitioning during her service.

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

Picture from flickr user damopabe

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10 Issues to Watch for on the Korean Peninsula in 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Efforts to Denuclearize North Korea

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

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

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

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

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

Revitalizing the South Korean Economy

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

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

The Course of South Korea’s Relations with Japan

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

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

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

How the U.S. Presidential Elections Could Impact Policy

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

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

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

Can South Korea Improve Its Fertility Rate

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

Will the Government Comprehensibly Tackle Elderly Poverty?

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

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

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

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

How YouTube Shapes Media Consumption in South Korea

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

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

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

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

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

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Lessons Learned: Kim Jong-un and the U.S.-Iran Confrontation

By Robert R. King

In the last few days the United States and Iran faced off in their most recent and one of their most dangerous confrontations.  North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un was no doubt watching more intently and more anxiously than most other world leaders.  It is hard to believe that Chairman Kim has not been thinking in very personal terms about the situation involving Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

A clear indication of Pyongyang’s intense interest in the U.S.-Iran confrontation is the fact that North Korea’s tightly-controlled news media has been unusually quiet on the topic.  The media avoided comment or even giving coverage to the actions taking place between Washington and Tehran.  North Korean media cited the public Chinese and Russian criticism of the U.S. drone strike in Baghdad, and reported that Soleimani had been killed.  The North Korean story did not mention Soleimani’s high position in the Iranian military hierarchy nor give an indication of his importance in Iran.  Kim Jong-un’s visit to a fertilizer factory at the time of these events was given considerably more media coverage in Pyongyang.

North Korea, Iran and the “Axis of Evil”

North Korea has been consistently placed in the same category as Iran by U.S. presidents over the last two decades.  Additions and deletions have been made to U.S. listing of rogue regimes, but the only two countries consistently on the list are Iran and North Korea.  Nearly 20 years ago shortly after the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City,  President George W. Bush linked North Korea and Iran when he included both countries plus Iraq, which was invaded shortly afterward, in the memorable phrase “Axis of Evil.”  During the Bush Administration, John Bolton added Cuba, Venezuela, and Libya to the Axis of Evil.  The revolutionary overthrow and execution of Muammar Qadaffi a few years later resulted in the removal of Libya from the list.

In his first State of the Union Address in January 2018, Donald Trump singled out four “communist and socialist dictatorships” for his own list of rogue regimes threatening world peace.  Trump’s list was Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela.  The fact that Iran and North Korea are consistently on the naughty list must make Kim Jong-un very attentive to how the U.S. president is dealing with Iran.

On January 8, just a few days after the death of Iranian General Soleimani in the U.S. drone strike in Baghdad and the day after Iranian missiles were fired in retaliation against U.S. military bases in Iraq, President Trump delivered a closely watched White House speech on Iran.  Officials in Pyongyang were probably paying very careful attention to Trump’s speech.

Pyongyang is also very likely watching closely the popular upheaval and protests in Iran that followed just a few days later when the Iranian government belatedly admitted that one of its missiles had mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian commercial aircraft killing 176 mostly ethnic Iranian passengers.  In light of North Korean and Iranian cooperation on nuclear and missile issues, as well as both countries’ hostility to the United States, Pyongyang is probably paying very close attention to what has transpired between Tehran and Washington.

North Korea’s Ties with Iran on Nuclear and Missile Development 

The two countries have cooperated in the development of missile delivery systems.  North Korea provided scud missiles to Iran in the 1990s and probably earlier during the Iran-Iraq war, but Iran has continued to develop its own missile capabilities.  Iranian missiles appear to have more accurate targeting capability than we have seen thus far from North Korean launches in the last few months.

Public information about nuclear cooperation between Tehran and Pyongyang is limited, but in the past North Korea shared nuclear technology with countries hostile to the United States in the Middle East.  A North Korean-built nuclear reactor in Syria was destroyed by the Israeli military before it was completed.  The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that the destroyed facility had the capability to produce nuclear weapons-grade materials.  No similar nuclear smoking gun has been identified in the case of Iran, but there are convincing indications that North Korea and Iran have aided each other in their missile and nuclear quest.

President Trump’s efforts to work with Kim Jong-un to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula have largely foundered over North Korea’s nuclear aspirations.  A path forward on the nuclear issue was not identified in working-level discussions prior to the Hanoi Summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, and that was the reason the summit failed.  The first sentence in President Trump’s January 8 speech on the current crisis with Iran—even before the President said “Good morning” to the assembled journalists and dignitaries—was this statement: “As long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.” That first statement was only then followed by a “Good morning” and the information that no Americans were harmed in the Iranian missile strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq just a few hours earlier.

The unequivocal reaffirmation of opposition to nuclear weapons for Iran was likely interpreted in Pyongyang by Kim Jong-un as a very negative signal with regard to the possibility of some accommodation with the United States.  Kim has been adamant in insisting that he intends to maintain and enhance North Korea’s nuclear and missile capability.

Trump’s Whims, Not National Consensus is the Basis of U.S. Policy

A red flag warning to Kim Jong-un from President Trump’s action against Iran is that U.S. policy is not based on a broad national consensus.  Policy changes take place at the whim of the person who happens to be in the White House.  Trump made that point clear in his January 8th White House speech on the Iranian missile attacks on U.S. military facilities in Iraq.  He harshly criticized by name his predecessor, former President Barack Obama.

Trump also blamed the multinational agreement to limit Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons, known as the JPCOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).  This agreement was negotiated with the participation and support not only of the United Sates but also the other members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom) as well as Germany and the European Union.  The bottom line message from the President’s speech and U.S. military actions is that policy changes with a change in leadership.  Policy changes at the whim of the person who happens to be in the Oval Office at the time.

In light of U.S. actions involving Iran over the last few weeks, the aggressive U.S. action against one of North Korea’s few friends, as well as the idiosyncratic personal role played by President Trump are likely to make the North even more cautious about making any serious long-term changes in its relationship with the United States.  Suspicion and caution about United States intentions raised by the Iranian actions will likely make further progress on U.S.-North Korean relations even more difficult and unlikely.

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

Photo from Peyman Abkhezr’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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