Tag Archive | "US – ROK Relations"

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

By Mark Tokola

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in slider, South KoreaComments (0)

Can South Korea Find A Middle Way Between the U.S. and China?

By Mintaro Oba

The South Korea-China relationship has its share of ups and downs.  But ultimately, the long-term trajectory of Korea-China ties will always trend upward; the strategic and economic interests bringing the two countries together are too compelling to keep them apart for too long.

As the Korea Desk officer at the State Department charged with following Korea-China relations through many of those ups and downs – from the high of then-President Park Geun-hye’s attendance at the September 2015 military parade in Beijing to the low of the Korea-China dispute over the THAAD deployment – that was the one point I always insisted on including in any briefing to senior officials on the Korea-China relationship.  It’s also the key point the United States neglects today.  Not antagonizing Beijing in order to maintain this mutually beneficial relationship is a key tenet of South Korean foreign policy, and U.S. policymakers hoping Seoul will explicitly back an aggressive U.S. approach to competing with China are headed for deep and profound disappointment.  If the United States wants South Korea to play a constructive and helpful role in its China strategy, it will have to take a more nuanced approach, one that emphasizes implicit balancing over explicit competition.

Like it or not, a closer South Korea-China relationship is a strategic fact of the region.  For South Korea, it’s the logical way to maximize its diplomatic options, trying to get the most out of having good relations with the two major powers in the region and the world.  For China, engaging South Korea is a useful way to disrupt the U.S. alliance system by securing the backing of a U.S. ally for Chinese priorities the United States might not favor (like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) as well as reducing the likelihood it will face a united front from U.S. allies in the region in the event of some conflict.  Economically, too, both countries benefit from access to each other’s markets, and China is South Korea’s largest trading partner by far.

It’s no wonder, then, that we have seen the current Moon Jae-in administration follow in the footsteps of past Korean administration in making moves to strengthen Korea-China ties, too.  Before the COVID-19 pandemic, South Korea had been expecting a state visit by Xi Jinping that it hoped would signal a return to strong Korea-China relations after the particularly difficult period caused by THAAD.  Although the pandemic temporarily stymied those efforts, Korea-China relations have been gaining momentum as both countries emerge from the situation and turn their focus back to strategic priorities and restoring economic growth, with President Moon reaffirming that Xi would visit Seoul within the year and the two countries are continuing discussions to expand the scope of their bilateral free trade agreement.

But much to South Korea’s consternation, just as its efforts to engage China return to the front burner, U.S. policy toward China has hardened dramatically. The Trump administration has cited South Korea as a potential participant in its new Economic Prosperity Network initiative designed to sideline China from global supply chains.  Tensions over China’s proposed national security law in Hong Kong also threaten to entangle South Korea.  South Korea has held a special interagency meeting to discuss how to handle U.S.-China tensions.  “If we antagonize China,” warned Moon Chung-in, special advisor to President Moon Jae-in, “China can pose a military threat to us. Plus, China can support North Korea. Then, we will really have a new Cold War on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia.”

The evidence is clear: South Korea’s longstanding interest in maintaining ties with China and its deep-seated fear of antagonizing Beijing on practically everything guarantees that explicit U.S.-Korea counterbalancing against China won’t work.  At the same time, a more competitive mindset about U.S.-China relations is likely to be a permanent fixture of the regional environment and U.S. domestic politics – and if South Korea can’t find some way to accommodate the U.S. strategic interest in countering China, it will find more and more U.S. policymakers questioning the value and fairness of an alliance in which the United States has firmly committed lives and resources to dealing with South Korea’s ultimate strategic priority, North Korea.

Luckily, there’s a middle way: an implicit balancing strategy that focuses on the substance of countering Chinese power and not the optics, creating more space for South Korea to contribute in concrete ways to the U.S. strategy without openly antagonizing China.  How would this work?

First, work with South Korea to help other states gain strategic and economic capabilities that would help them offset Chinese power.   

From helping Indonesia build up its coast guard to help it better patrol its territorial waters, to expanding trade with Vietnam to offset both countries’ economic dependence on China, South Korea’s expertise, economic power, and many advanced capabilities can quietly support other powers in maintaining their independence from China.

To advance these goals, the United States should cooperate with South Korea in a way that invites a Chinese overreaction.  China’s coercive response to THAAD deployment is just the biggest example of how China can turn something South Korea has done for its own security into a contest of sovereignty.  The United States should advance cooperation with South Korea that can serve as tripwires for China to stumble and publicly make an issue of something in a way that causes damage to its standing in South Korea.  Strengthening U.S.-Korea-India cooperation is a good example – something benign that benefits all three countries, but could easily be portrayed by China as a strategic threat.

Second, embed South Korea in rules-based agreements and institutions in key areas. 

Rules-based order is a quiet battleground between the United States and China.  China benefits from ignoring international law, like the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, in favor of using its might to enforce legally unjustifiable claims like its Nine-Dash Line in the South China Sea and create facts on the ground that support those claims.  When it comes to the South China Sea, South Korea has always wavered between China and the United States on the notion of reinforcing rules; if Seoul does comment on the South China Sea, for example, it has a tendency to focus on norms of safe passage and freedom rather than the applicable rules in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.  But in other developing areas, like cyber or environmental policy, there is a chance to commit South Korea to rules and norms that promote values the United States and South Korea claim to share, like a free, open, and multistakeholder model of governing the Internet.

Third, and finally, the United States and South Korea should place a greater emphasis on public diplomacy.

The United States has a demonstrated track record of successful public diplomacy with South Korea, from effective short-term engagement by U.S. ambassadors to South Korea – like Sung Kim, Mark Lippert, and KEI’s own Kathleen Stephens – to exchange programs that create strong people-to-people ties long term.  China has proven less deft in this arena.  With the right ambassador in Seoul and the right public initiatives, the United States can strengthen its ties with the Korean people, highlight its commitment to South Korea’s sovereignty and strength, and create an environment where any Chinese missteps and overreach could draw helpful contrasts with the United States for Koreans.

Ultimately, the United States needs to reassess how it conceives its overall strategy toward China – and what the point of strategic competition with China really is.  Is it competition for competition’s sake?  Or is it competition to ensure that the rules and outcomes that matter, in areas from human rights to trade relations, are shaped by the United States, its partners, and the values we share?  If it’s the latter, there is a great deal we can accomplish together with South Korea.  If it’s the former, we may be on our own.

Mintaro Oba is a former State Department official and expert commentator on U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as a Contributing Author for The Peninsula.

Photo from the White House photostream on flickr Creative Commons. 

Posted in slider, South KoreaComments (1)

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.

Posted in North Korea, slider, South KoreaComments (0)

New Prospects for U.S.-Korea-Japan Cooperation

By Emanuel Pastreich

The difficulties in promoting cooperation between Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington, D.C. in response to the rising technological and economic strength of China has been the hot topic of discussion in the United States. The standard answer is to attribute the difficulties to historical issues that have created an emotional gap between these two allies of the United States.

Although the resentment of Koreans regarding the events of the pre-war period are real, and they do occasionally create major obstacles, it is far from certain that they are the primary cause of the divergent views. It is entirely natural that South Korea, Japan, and the United States have divergent geopolitical interests. It is also clear that all three countries are riven domestically by ideological schisms that make a “NATO of Asia” difficult, if not impossible.

The push for collaboration has focused largely on military and security, with China postulated as a potential threat that must be countered through deterrence. Although this perspective has become commonplace in Washington, D.C., it is far from the consensus among experts on security in the United States, let alone in South Korea and Japan. If anything, concerns about nuclear war, climate change, the unprecedented concentration of wealth, and the negative impact of artificial intelligence and automation on human society dwarf any security threat from China, or from North Korea.

Thus, it is no surprise that there is no consensus on forging deeper military ties centered on potential threats from North Korea and China in the three countries.

In addition, we must ask ourselves whether future conflicts will follow familiar patterns. The rapid evolution of new technologies, from 3D printing to micro drones, to next-generation artificial intelligence assures us of a future in which powerful destructive tools will be available to small groups at the same time that internet-based links bring together similar groups around the world for like purposes. Such developments could make many current weapons systems obsolete from the start.

Technological change has also encouraged deep fragmentation within nation-states, at home and abroad.  Simply raising military budgets, or preaching about our alliances, is not going to make us safer. We need to understand the nature of emerging threats that go beyond the schemata we have used previously to define security, and make sure that citizens in all three countries are properly informed.

Whether we are talking about preventing nuclear war, climate catastrophe, or hybrid conflicts at the national, regional and international levels, we need to use our creativity.

Cooperation between the United States, South Korea, and Japan in the security realm, either traditional or non-traditional, can be extremely positive, but it must be the result of a rigorous and robust discussion between the three countries on science, technology, the environment, policy and strategy as well. That discussion will not only assure us that we are spending the tax dollars of citizens on responses to security threats that are up to date and effective, but will also create a broad consensus among the citizens and experts involved in this discussion at every level that will help to avoid misunderstandings in the future.

The economic and technological integration between these three nations is considerable and offers paths for effective cooperation to address emerging challenges.

Rather than force through military-military cooperation which does not grow naturally out of a broader discussion, the three countries need to broaden and deepen cooperation in fields that deeply inform security, but which are not strictly military.


There is tremendous potential for cooperation in education between the United States, South Korea, and Japan which should be pursued in a systematic manner. For example, we can create sister relations between elementary schools, middle schools and high schools at the local level in all three countries that will be the foundations for deep exchanges. Internet-based learning can serve as an opportunity for students in the three countries to meet up with each other on-line, engage in common projects and learn about each other’s neighborhoods, regions and countries.

If those exchanges are carried on long-term, they may evolve into lifetime relationships that will bring the three countries together.

Whether it is American, Korean and Japanese first-graders making presentations about their neighborhoods for each other, or community college students discussing with their peers how we should respond to the threat of nuclear war or the fragmentation of society, these opportunities for direct collaboration in education would be immensely valuable in building lasting ties.


We cannot discuss the future of security unless our discussion is grounded in science. We must encourage the use of the scientific method in all three countries at every level, from discussions among friends up to the formulation of national policy.

Towards this end, we must promote long-term collaboration in scientific research between the three countries which is combined with a broader effort to promote scientific thinking in society as a whole.

There are projects in scientific research that involve researchers in the three nations already, as well as other nations. It would be possible to focus government funding on collaborative research between the three countries for long-term research projects on critical issues that would tie the three together in a stable and predictable manner and promote broader cooperation.

The joint research in biology and bioengineering between Professor Heiwan Lee of Hanyang University and Hara Masahiko of RIKEN that was active from 2010 to 2016 is a model for how joint collaboration can be conducted between Japan and South Korea. Bringing in an American institutional partner to that project would have made it even stronger.

But science is not just about research. It is critical that we invest heavily in increasing the understanding of science among citizens in the three countries and international cooperation in civic education is another critical field. Town Hall forums that encourage a scientific analysis of the challenges facing human society can be planned that link together citizens from the three countries and that provide, through translation, opportunities for deeper exchanges. Shared best practices between the United States, South Korea, and Japan, for example, could be valuable.

Technology and policy

Existing networks for cooperation for the development of technology and for the formulation of policy between the three countries can be enhanced and brought to focus on the needs of society, rather than financial profit.

For example, the development of the technology for next-generation electric batteries, solar cells, or wind-powered generators that will be in the public domain could be undertaken by the three countries. So also, programs for the development of new policies to implement those resilient technologies at the local level could be developed through cooperation between the three countries. The sharing of best practices could be done in the form of sister city/sister state relations, thereby encouraging collaboration between citizens.

The arts and the humanities

Cooperation in the performing arts, film, painting, sculpture, and writing could be a critical means of drawing the three countries together and creating a consensus on current issues. What we think about security in the United States, South Korea, and Japan will be determined by how “security” is represented and discussed. Security is ultimately a cultural, and not a technological, issue. Therefore the humanities are not secondary fields to policy and technology, but rather they are the front line where philosophy, morality, and methods of representation intersect.

The three countries can cooperate in making films that address the concerns of youth, the threat of climate change, the growing inequity in our society and numerous other topics. Providing reliable funding for such efforts can help artists and intellectuals from the three countries to join forces in efforts to create works of art that help citizens to conceive of current threats like climate change and nuclear war and that offer new directions for international collaboration between citizens for security.

Cultural exchanges can do much to deepen current discussions between the three countries. If we include creative activities like writing and music into otherwise dry and formalized discussions about security and trade, we can create an environment in which innovative approaches are possible and a more honest debate conceivable.

I have attended many meetings between high-level figures from government, industry, and research in which the conversation never went beyond the most superficial greetings. Such overly formalized meetings are tremendous loss because often the experts assembled represented a treasure of expertise.

Just having a chance to listen to a musical performance together, or create a work of art together, can transform such meetings into something remarkably positive. The arts and humanities can contribute not only to helping citizens to understand the challenges of our age, but also in facilitating a discourse between policymakers that goes beyond the rituals of state and gives real gravitas to the exchange.


The goal of enhancing cooperation between the United States, South Korea and Japan in the field of security is worthy. Achieving that goal will be a complex process. Identifying what exactly security will mean in the 21st century, and how we can cooperate in our response is a task that will require the three countries to cooperate closely at all levels, from kindergarten to advanced research laboratories, for the long term. Before we start signing any narrow military and intelligence agreements, let us make sure that we have worked together closely as citizens, experts and policy makers to understand scientifically the current challenges and to respond in a constructive and effective manner.

Emanuel Pastreich is the President of The Asia Institute and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own. 

Image from the U.S. State Department flickr account.

Posted in Japan, slider, South Korea, U.S. Foreign PolicyComments (0)

Emerging 5G industry in South Korea amid the U.S.-China Trade Conflict

By Hyoshin Kim and Junsoo Kweon

5G offers faster data speeds than current mobile networks and could transform the global economy through fields like Internet of Things (IoT) and self-driving cars. This network is also critical to a nation’s military capabilities. It can share huge volumes of data across vast distances, allowing governments to track missile launches and transmit real-time drone footage.

Given the security implications of the 5G industry, the U.S. government is concerned with China’s rising dominance in this sector. The Chinese company Huawei is already a leading global information and technology provider. It is also active in South Korea’s telecommunications market. As the U.S. government monitors Huawei, the company’s presence as a 5G vendor in South Korea has created a dilemma.

The Trump Administration has warned allies that Huawei is an untrusted 5G vendor. This is because China’s National Intelligence Law requires all people and entities within China to abide by the decisions of China’s communist government. If the Chinese government wanted some information from Huawei’s networks, all it has to do is ask.

To make the situation worse, The Washington Post reported that Huawei conducted “secret operations to build North Korea’s wireless network”. The company’s history of operating in countries like Iran further intensifies concerns around Huawei’s intentions to become the principal provider of 5G technology to East Asia.

Despite these concerns, South Korea continues to accept Huawei contracts. Huawei’s price-competitiveness has attracted significant attention in the race to develop regional 5G network infrastructure. One of the three mobile phone service providers, LG Uplus, in South Korea has partnered with Huawei to build its 5G network. Meanwhile, the Japanese government decided to ban Huawei, pushing back on any official contracts with Huawei in its telecommunications network.

The U.S. government insists that the risk of information leaking to China through Huawei’s 5G networks could endanger the U.S. alliance with South Korea and Japan. Randall Schriver, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, said “The United States doesn’t want to see a situation arise where we don’t have confidence in sharing sensitive information with our ally and information being safeguarded.”

South Korea, in particular, is caught in between China and the United States. China is geographically closer to South Korea and makes up a larger share of its foreign trade. China accounts for 26.8% of South Korea’s exports. Leveraging this economic clout, the Chinese government is pushing South Korea to continue trading with Huawei.

In response, South Korea has been actively developing its own 5G industry that can compete with Huawei. In June, the government of South Korea launched a 5G plus strategic committee to establish a long-term plan to enhance the Korean companies’ share in the 5G telecommunication equipment market. Furthermore, Korea is actively looking to cooperate with ASEAN markets on 5G network buildout, providing an avenue for Korean technology companies to scale-up its 5G capacity.

With the government’s support, Samsung is expanding its 5G business. Already the world’s biggest supplier of smartphones and computer chips, Samsung plans to utilize its existing infrastructure to give it a competitive edge over Huawei in 2020. In addition, Samsung is a leader in the semiconductor industry, which provides core components for 5G base stations and transmitters. As Samsung develops smaller and faster semiconductors, its 5G wireless technology is also anticipated to improve.

Samsung is also positioning to be a possible partner of the United States. Claude Barfield, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argued “It is not clear if Huawei’s two current competitors — Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia — will be able to match Huawei’s prodigious resources. Samsung could develop into a potent third option over the next several years.” As South Korea looks to bolster its own tech infrastructure while balancing its security needs, it is worth paying greater attention to South Korea’s 5G network.

Hyoshin Kim is an Asan Fellow and an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. Junsoo Kweon is an Asan Fellow and intern at the Heritage Foundation. The views expressed here are the authors’ own.

Photo from Kārlis Dambrāns’ photostream on flickr Creative Commons. 

Posted in China, Economics, slider, South Korea, U.S. Foreign PolicyComments (0)

Debate around South Korea’s Role in the Alliance Splits along Partisan Lines

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

  • South Korea looks to assume wartime operational control (OPCON) from the United States by 2022.
  • A survey conducted by the ASAN Institute in February revealed that 40% of South Koreans supported the planned transfer, while 32% advocated postponement and 11 called for the plan to be eliminated altogether.
  • A group of retired deputy commanders from the Combined Forces Command (CFC) urged the Moon administration to postpone these changes until after North Korea’s denuclearization.

Implications: A long-established progressive-conservative flashpoint, South Korea’s assumption of OPCON continues to divide people along partisan lines despite growing criticism of U.S. government’s North Korea policy by people on all political spectrums. The conservatives’ strong support for the status quo is partly rooted in the fear that the U.S.-Korea military alliance may begin to unravel if Seoul regains OPCON. This aversion to potential abandonment outweighs conservatives’ growing dissatisfaction with Trump’s policies towards the Korean Peninsula, particularly his amicable posture towards Kim Jong-un. This also overcomes bipartisan misgivings around the Trump administration’s demand for more money to host U.S. troops in South Korea. The opinion of CFC deputy commanders will further embolden conservative opposition to President Moon’s current push to accelerate OPCON transfer.

Context: Domestic politics aside, South Korea still faces several barriers before it can secure OPCON. First, the South Korean military must pass a test to validate its capabilities. Second, the two countries must conclude negotiations on the role of the United Nations Command post-OPCON transfer. In recent months, these talks have reached a significant impasse. As such, the timeline of OPCON transfer may be delayed despite the Moon administration’s plans.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Soojin Hwang, Hyoshin Kim, and Rachel Kirsch.

Picture from UNC – CFC – USFK flickr account

Posted in slider, South KoreaComments (0)

Spotlight on Korea’s “Developing-Country” Status

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

What Happened

  • President Trump released a memorandum calling for South Korea to renounce its developing-country status in the World Trade Organization (WTO).
  • In response, the Ministry of Trade proposed removing the status, pointing out that South Korea no longer received benefits from retaining the status.
  • Meanwhile, the Ministry of Agriculture argued against relinquishing the status, which helps South Korea protect its rural sector.

Implications: The Korean government’s decision to renounce its status as a developing country at the WTO will reveal that the Moon administration has the political capital to appease the Trump administration. As ties with Japan continues to deteriorate, there is a premium on maintaining the status quo with Korea’s other key trade partners. Ties with the United States have already been strained over Seoul’s withdrawal from its intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan. In addition, tensions may arise in the near future as Korea and the United States restart difficult negotiations on cost-sharing for U.S. troops deployed on the peninsula. In this environment, Seoul’s decision on its WTO status will reveal whether the Moon administration has the domestic political space to impose additional burdens on farmers to secure a favorable relationship with the Trump administration.

Context: Currently, WTO status is determined by self-declaration, but the Trump administration identified four standards it believed should be criteria for exclusion from developing-country status. South Korea meets all four of them. The White House also accused other countries of maintaining a dishonest status at the WTO, and some countries have already begun to change. Brazil, for instance, relinquished its status as a developing-country in the WTO in order to be considered for membership in the OECD.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Soojin Hwang, Hyoshin Kim, and Rachel Kirsch.

The picture is from the World Trade Organization’s Flickr account

Posted in Economics, slider, South Korea, U.S. Foreign PolicyComments (0)

Seoul Looks for a Tune that Resonates with Trump on Burden-Sharing

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

  • In a tweet, Donald Trump announced that South Korea had “agreed to pay substantially more money to the United States in order to defend itself from North Korea.”
  • South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs underscored that it was “inappropriate” to comment on a foreign leader’s Twitter post, but emphasized that negotiations for the defense cost-sharing have not yet started.
  • During his visit to Seoul in July, National Security Advisor John Bolton asked for $5 billion in annual payments from South Korea for hosting U.S. troops – this would mean South Korea paying over $4 billion more than what it is contributing today.

Implications: The South Korean government believes that it can coax the U.S. government into accepting a lower amount than what John Bolton demanded by offering concessions in other areas. ROK officials are reportedly discussing the deployment of naval units to the Strait of Hormuz to demonstrate South Korea’s role in advancing Washington’s geopolitical interests outside the Asia-Pacific region. In addition, Seoul may increase its acquisition of U.S. military hardware to convey the country’s contributions to the American arms industry. With an eye on messaging the importance of the bilateral security relationship more aggressively among U.S. policymakers, the Blue House will also dispatch a new ambassador to the United States.

These actions stem from South Korea’s belief that Washington is making an aggressive opening bid in a discussion that is negotiable. Some Korean newspapers have rationalized the controversial tweet as a tactic described in the 1987 business advice book “The Art of the Deal,” which is credited to Trump. This view may have been further bolstered by the fact that Bolton’s $5 billion demand does not comply with the U.S. administration’s own proposal for allies to pay “Cost Plus 50.” However, KEI Fellow Kyle Ferrier believes that the White House may be more recalcitrant in its position, as evidenced by Bolton’s similar demand to Tokyo that Japan increase its burden-sharing contributions fivefold.

Context: South Korea’s tactical maneuvers are animated by its recent negotiations with the U.S. government. When Donald Trump raised issue with the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, South Korean negotiators were able to steer the U.S. government away from significant revisions by making small concessions in the steel and auto sectors. Similarly, in last year’s negotiations with Washington on burden-sharing, Seoul avoided the initial U.S. demand for a 100-200% increase in monetary contributions through arms acquisition and other measures. It is unclear whether this strategy will continue to have mileage in upcoming burden-sharing discussions.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Yusong Cha, Stephen Eun, Taehwa Hong, and Hyoshin Kim.

Picture courtesy of the White House

Posted in slider, South Korea, U.S. Foreign PolicyComments (0)

Seventh Anniversary of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement

By Phil Eskeland

Seventh wedding anniversaries are oftentimes overlooked.  It is not as glamorous as a 25th silver or 50th golden anniversary.  Gifts associated with a seventh year wedding anniversary in the U.S. are items made either out of copper or wool; a far cry from precious stones linked with other momentous anniversaries.  Nevertheless, on this day, it is still valuable to look back to evaluate the effectiveness of one of the most economically and strategically significant trade deals ever negotiated and implemented by the United States:  the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA)

In 2011, the Republican-controlled Congress passed by a wide bipartisan margin the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act.  The legislation was signed into law by President Barack Obama on October 21, 2011.  The KORUS FTA became operational on March 15, 2012.  While 80 percent of U.S. exports to South Korea of consumer and industrial products immediately became duty free, full implementation of KORUS will occur on March 15, 2022, when almost all remaining tariffs will be eliminated.

Part of the justification for supporting this agreement was an analysis by the independent U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) that estimated U.S. “merchandise exports to South Korea would likely increase by an estimated $9.7-10.9 billion as a result of tariff and TRQ [tariff-rate quota] provisions” once the KORUS agreement was fully implemented in 10 years.  While the USITC study also concluded that aggregate U.S. employment changes would “likely be negligible” because of the small size of the Korean economy relative to the U.S. economy, this did not prevent the Obama Administration from predicting that KORUS would support an estimated 70,000 U.S. jobs based on a separate calculation, at the time, from the U.S. Department of Commerce that every $1 billion in merchandise exports supports about 6,600 jobs in the United States.

During the early years of KORUS, there were times when it appeared that U.S. exports to Korea were not growing much, if at all, and exasperated a growing bilateral trade imbalance.  As a result, some anti-trade activists criticized the agreement even though the stagnant U.S. export growth was primarily attributable to declining commodity prices and a decision by Seoul to reduce its purchases of coal worldwide to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.  But as KORUS entered its fifth year of implementation when Korean tariffs on even more U.S. products were lowered further or went to zero, the U.S. became much more competitive in selling goods in Korea.  For example, sales of U.S. beef to Korea (a politically sensitive item in the original KORUS negotiations) have increased by 56 percent in volume and 155 percent in value since 2011 as the Korean tariff rate is gradually being reduced from its pre-KORUS high of 40 percent.

As a result, U.S. exports of merchandise goods to Korea increased by $12.9 billion since 2011 to reach a record $56.3 billion in 2018.  Thus, using the latest exports-to-jobs analysis from the Department of Commerce, the increased level of merchandise exports to Korea supported over 81,000 U.S. jobs.  In other words, at the seven-year mark, the KORUS FTA achieved the benchmark goals estimated by both the USITC and the Obama Administration three years before full implementation.  A tertiary benefit to rising U.S. exports to Korea was also a parallel decline in the bilateral merchandise trade deficit to levels not seen since 2013.  These achievements were all reached before any of the modifications to the KORUS FTA that were negotiated by the Trump Administration last year went into effect in January.

In addition, the composition of U.S. merchandise exports to Korea has changed during the past seven years.  In 2011, the top U.S. export to South Korea was computers and electronic products.  Now, oil and gas produced from the shale revolution in the U.S. comprise the largest share of American exports to Korea, reaching an astounding $8.6 billion.  In fact, Korea is presently the second largest importer of U.S. oil in the world.  This is a byproduct of initially allowing only petroleum exports to countries that the U.S. had negotiated a free trade agreements, but accelerated when Congress formally lifted the ban on crude oil exports to all nations in 2015.

As we reflect on the success of the KORUS FTA on this notable anniversary, it is important to also remember that other factors may influence future economic behavior as we move further away from the initial implementation date.  There are other macroeconomic factors that may alter America’s current market share in Korea, including Korea’s free trade agreements with other countries, along with uncertainties in dealing with the North Korean regime that may have secondary effects on the South Korean economy.  Nonetheless, the initial criticism of the KORUS FTA was premature and not warranted.  The agreement has worked as intended by increasing U.S. export opportunities to Korea, providing additional employment opportunities for American workers, and strengthening the alliance between the U.S. and the Republic of Korea.


Phil Eskeland is Executive Director for Operations and Policy at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Posted in slider, South KoreaComments (0)

Growing Congressional Assertiveness on U.S. Foreign Policy: Implications for Korea

By Phil Eskeland

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate voted by a wide bipartisan margin for an amendment expressing opposition to a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan.  Nearly every Republican Senator and more than half of the Senate Democratic Conference supported this amendment.  This vote comes after confusing pronouncements from the Trump Administration that U.S. troops would soon be leaving Syria and Afghanistan.  It also comes just one week after another legislative effort, offered by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY), to oppose the lifting of sanctions against a Russian oligarch close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, which garnered the support of not just every Senate Democrat, but also 11 Senate Republicans.  What was notable about yesterday’s vote was the author of the amendment:  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who sets the legislative agenda for Senate Republicans and, by practical effect, for President Donald Trump.

Last year, there were a few examples of the Republican-led Congress blazing its own trail in setting some aspects of U.S. foreign policy apart from the Trump Administration such as a rare prohibition on the ability of the President to waive sanctions against Russia.  However, with the departure of some key national security advisers and Cabinet officials during the past year who were thought to be the “adults” in the room to manage President Trump divergence from traditional Republican orthodoxy on foreign policy and with the gains Democrats made in the 2018 elections, many Republican national security “hawks” are coming to the conclusion that they need to differentiate themselves from President Trump on several fronts.

This may have implications for U.S. policy towards North Korea.  Last December, the President signed into law the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (P.L. 115-409), which makes clear that the policy of the United States with regard to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs is the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of such programs.”  The new law also states that “it is the policy of the United States to continue to impose sanctions” on North Korea until it “is no longer engaged in the illicit activities described” in various U.S. Executive Orders and United National Security Council resolutions.

In addition, earlier this week, Representative Mike Gallagher (WI-8th) introduced bipartisan legislation (H.R.889) with three other Republicans and four other Democrats to renew the restrictions on the ability for the President to reduce the number of U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula below 22,000 personnel.

These legislative efforts may complicate negotiations with North Korea, particularly if the upcoming summit meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un leads to a relaxation of sanctions without a clear path towards dismantling the existing stockpile.  If defense “hawks” in the U.S. conclude that North Korea continues to engage in various illicit activities, then implementing any agreement would be very problematic.  Recall that the Agreed Framework of 1994 did not succeed, in part, because of Congressional reluctance and resistance to fulfilling the American side of the bargain by slow-walking the provision to provide aid to North Korea.  This did not allow the completion of the light-water reactor and delayed the delivery of heavy fuel oil on several occasions.  From 1995 until 2006 (excepting 18 months from 2001 until 2002, Democrats controlled the Senate), Republicans controlled Congress.  Thus, it is of the utmost importance for the Trump Administration to continuously brief and inform Members of Congress regarding U.S. policy towards North Korea to garner their support and to avoid a repetition of previous failed diplomatic efforts to end weapons of mass destruction threat from the DPRK.

Phil Eskeland is Executive Director for Operations and Policy at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Picture taken by Lance Corporal Zachery Laning, U.S. Marine Corps via Wikimedia Commons

Posted in slider, U.S. Foreign PolicyComments (0)

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.