The Change of Government in South Korea and the Outlook for the Resolution of the Nuclear and Missile Crisis on the Korean Peninsula
People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy
Chair of Policy Committee
The candlelight demonstrations held by millions of South Korean citizens from late October 2016 year to early March 2017 resulted in the impeachment of Park Geun-hye. Moon Jae-in, the main opposition party candidate, won the ensuing presidential by-election. The Moon administration faces a historic mission to cater to the mounting popular demand for change and reform across all areas of policymaking, including national security. Over the last nine years, under two conservative presidential administrations, the tensions on the Korean Peninsula have escalated to new heights, while the rivalry between the United States and China has also taken a turn for the worse. The new South Korean President now faces an unprecedented level of complexity in foreign relations. Now is the time to explore what the election of the more progressive-leaning Moon Jae-in administration means for the Korean Peninsula and the surrounding countries, and how the Moon administration could affect and change the relations between South Korea, on the one hand, and North Korea and other countries, on the other.
2. President Moon’s Campaign Pledges Regarding National Security
The Moon administration, which has come to power amid the watershed moment in Korean politics occasioned by candlelight demonstrations and impeachment, is expected to introduce major changes into the Korean government’s foreign and national security policies.
Candlelight Demonstrations and the Impeachment of Park Geun-hye
The bill for impeaching Park Geun-hye, the then South Korean President, was passed with the consent of 234 out of the 300 members of the National Assembly on December 7, 2016. The Constitutional Court upheld the impeachment of President Park unanimously on March 11, 2017.
The beginnings of this so-called “candlelight revolution” date back to the summer of 2016, when news media began to divulge facts concerning the Park administration’s abuse of power and corruption. Enraged citizens took to the streets and began to hold candlelight demonstrations. They were not just angered by the corruption of the Park administration and its officials. As the most popular slogan during the demonstration, “Is this really a country?” implies, citizens had been frustrated by the incompetence and corruption structurally perpetuated over the preceding nine years by the last two conservative administrations that neglected the wellbeing of the people. As such, Sewol the name of the Ferry that sank in April 2014 emerged as a central keyword throughout the candlelight demonstrations[i].
During the presidential campaign, Moon Jae-in pledged to strengthen popular control over all aspects of policymaking, fight and eradicate corruption, mitigate income inequality and achieve income-led economic growth through economic democratization and social welfare services, as well as promote ecological sustainability, gender equality, cultural diversity and the freedom of expression. The Moon camp accepted almost all the demands made at the candlelight demonstrations. In the days following his election, President Moon promised to run the government in ways that respect popular sovereignty, end the cycle of using national security to control the public, and achieve national cohesion based on justice. In sum, he has promised to pursue national cohesion, while putting an end to old and corrupt politics.
Democratization of National Security and Consideration of Human Security
A central vision of Moon’s election camp was to create “a peaceful Korean Peninsula and a strong and safe South Korea.”[ii] Moon emphasized four main principles for achieving this: namely, the responsibility of the defense policy, cooperation in foreign relations, priority on peaceful national unification, and the democracy of policymaking on national security issues. The messages of “democratic foreign policy,” “foreign policy that caters to the public interest,” and the protection of human rights in the military as well as its “democratization” all seem to be parts of the Moon administration’s determination to democratize national security.
A distinct feature of the Moon administration is that it puts the prevention of disasters and the safety of the public together with the strengthening of national security. This appears to reflect the rising social demand in Korea for the protection of human security in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown and the Sewol tragedy. As part of its vision for national security, the Moon administration has announced plans to nullify the plans for the construction of additional nuclear power plants and to refuse to extend the lifespans of existing ones so that South Korea would be reborn as a nuclear-free nation.
The Simultaneous Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the Establishment of a Peace Regime
The change of government is also evident in policymaking on conventional security issues. Throughout his campaign, Moon criticized the two preceding conservative administrations, under Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, for failing to deter North Korea from enhancing its nuclear capability through four nuclear experiments and missile launching tests. Moon emphasized that the lack of consistency in his predecessors’ foreign policy served only to worsen South Korea’s relations with North Korea and other partner countries. The two preceding administrations and the U.S. government insisted that no dialogue with North Korea would happen unless Pyongyang first abandoned its nuclear program. This, however, has been the main excuse for refusing to make a peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula. The Moon administration has put forward a contrary strategy; resolving to adopt “step-by-step and comprehensive” solutions to the North Korean nuclear problem by engaging in dialogue in response to each of the steps Pyongyang takes toward freezing and ultimately abandoning its nuclear and missile development programs. Even while stressing the need to resort to all available means, including dialogue and sanctions, to compel North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions, the Moon administration has promised to “make active use of bilateral and multilateral channels of dialogue, including the six-party talks” and to “establish a joint South-North Korean military control system toward preventing unforeseen clashes, lowering the military tension, and steering disarmament.”[iii]
Systematizing New South-North Korean Relations and Cooperative Diplomacy
In his address at the ceremony held to celebrate the 17th anniversary of the June 15th Joint Declaration of 2000, President Moon reaffirmed the agreement that the two Koreas reached at the historic summit as “an important asset that ought to be respected despite changes of government,” thus distinguishing his policy from those of his two predecessors. The Moon administration has thus explicitly stated that it would abandon the hopes of sudden and radical national unification by absorption. Instead, it plans to systematize new South-North relations by entering a new basic agreement toward achieving incremental and step-by-step unification. Contrary to his predecessors, President Moon has promised to allow for exchange at the civilian level to continue between the two Koreas despite the official sanctions against North Korea. In fact, President Moon has authorized all civilian requests for contact with North Korea.
As for foreign relations, the Moon administration has expressed its intent to balance and strengthen its relations with all the neighboring countries, including China, Japan, and Russia, even while strengthening South Korea’s alliance with the United States. In addition to strengthening partnership with China and Japan, the Moon administration has pledged to establish a new regime for multilateral collaboration toward restoring the platform for six-party talks and to help create a responsible Northeast Asian community encompassing cooperation on multilateral security and economic issues.
“Responsible National Defense” Involving Military Reform and Increasing Armament
The Moon administration also stresses that national defense is ultimately “our own responsibility” even as it will be based upon a “strong ROK-USA alliance.” Putting forward his vision of “strong and responsible national defense,” President Moon criticized the preceding conservative governments for their incompetence in protecting national security. He pledged to raise the defense spending from the current 2.4 percent of the GDP to 3.0 percent by the end of his term. In addition to quick development of preemptive strike and interception systems, such as the Kill Chain and Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) systems in case of possible nuclear or missile strikes from North Korea, the Moon administration will also foster the defense industry and the development of cutting-edge weaponry in ROK. South Korea is already spending far more on defense than the total GDP of North Korea.
The Moon administration has also pledged to take wartime operational control from the U.S. military to realize the ideal of “responsible defense,” which the preceding Park administration has neglected to achieve. This way, the South Korean government will be able to spend its significantly increased defense budget on ensuring the ROK Army’s capability for operational planning and drills. A key precondition for realizing “responsible defense” is the intense military reform, which has been put on hold since the Roh Moo-hyun administration. The reform will centrally feature the reduction of the number of troops to 500,000 and shortening the military service term to 18 months, while raising the pay for soldiers and permitting conscientious objection.
3. Prospects and Challenges Ahead
Moon, who was a long-time friend and also the chief of staff to the late ex-president, Roh Moo-hyun, has articulated a vision of national security that is in strong contrast with those of the preceding conservative governments and that seems to inherit the reconciliation- and cooperation-focused approaches — the so-called Sunshine or Peace and Prosperity Policies — of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations. The Moon government’s approach, however, also fundamentally differs from the policies of the previous progressive governments in key respects.
Sunshine Policy and More
First, the Moon administration takes the threats posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions far more seriously than the Kim and Roh administrations. Since his inauguration, President Moon has strenuously emphasized the need to expand South Korea’s capability for preemptive strikes, the strategic and deterrent assets provided by the United States, and the strengthening of the alliance with the United States. President Moon also acknowledges the necessity of the sanctions that the United States and the United Nations took against North Korea over the last decade or so.
The Moon administration shows a markedly different, and more advanced, approach to negotiations. Pointing out the failure of Washington’s “strategic patience” — requiring North Korea’s abandonment of nuclear weapons as the precondition for dialogue — President Moon has advocated adopting a different and step-by-step approach to negotiation. He also stresses a more comprehensive strategy of negotiation encompassing military and political issues together as necessary for resolving the Korean Peninsula crisis, emphasizing the need to outgrow the functionalist hope for economic aid leading to political and military cooperation. Recognizing that foreign and security policies cannot be placed outside democratic control, the Moon administration also emphasizes the democratic capability of citizenry as the bedrock of strong and successful foreign relations and national security.
The Moon administration’s approach to the Korean Peninsula crisis strives to compromise and reconcile diverse and often conflicting demands against the backdrop of a policy environment, in and outside Korea, that has been rendered all the more complex and uncertain over the last nine years. President Moon’s new policy vision stems from an assessment that the past hardline and sanction-centered stance has, in fact, worsened the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Yet it is also informed by the growing anti-Pyongyang sentiment in South Korea and other countries, provoked by North Korea’s expanding nuclear and missile arsenal. At the same time, President Moon is also mindful of the conflict between the demand for South Korea’s greater independence from the United States in matters of foreign policy, on the one hand, and the fear inspired by the possible weakening of the ROK-USA alliance, on the other. Heeding the changed policy priorities of citizens heard at candlelight demonstrations, the Moon administration seeks to invest in protecting the lives, safety, and welfare of the public and enhancing the democratic control over the institutions of national security, such as the military and the National Intelligence Service (NIS). It is also intent, however, upon assuaging the public’s general fear of a “leftwing government,” aggressively investing in expanding South Korea’s armament and showing off its military preparedness to the North.
Now that the South-North Korean relations have dropped to a new low since the Korean War, the Moon administration has expressed a strong determination to solve the crisis by applying all the resources and pressure it can. The first and foremost step towards finding the solution, according to President Moon, is for South Korea to resume its position behind the steering wheel and actively lead the process of resolving the crisis itself.
ROK-U.S. Alliance and South Korea’s Lead on Negotiations
President Moon sought to ascertain the Trump administration’s understanding of his new policy and vision for solving the Korean Peninsula crisis and to establish and strengthen new channels of cooperation between South Korea and the United States, while sending clear messages of negotiation and cooperation to North Korea and other countries. This plan culminated in the South Korea-USA Summit on June 30, 2017 and the Berlin Peace Initiatives announced soon afterward.[iv]
President Trump has brandished a hardline stance against North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions, threatening to resort to preemptive strikes if necessary, and going so far as to warn of “fire and fury”.[v] Yet he and President Moon agree on certain things, such as the failure of the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” policy, and skepticism of the U.S. government’s traditional pursuit of regime change and state building through conquest in rogue states. As the Trump administration recognizes North Korea’s nuclear arsenal as posing a serious threat to the United States’ national security and therefore deserves utmost attention as a top foreign policy issue, President Trump’s emphasis on “maximum pressure and intervention” might work better than strategic patience in bringing North Korea to the negotiation table.
According to the joint statement released at the June summit, both Presidents Moon and Trump have agreed to work together toward achieving the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceable manner, while recognizing sanctions as a component of their foreign policy and still maintaining openness to dialogue with North Korea under the right conditions. Both leaders stress the need to maintain the existing sanctions even while trying out new actions in order to maximize the pressure on North Korea to refrain from provocative behavior and return to serious and constructive dialogue. The two presidents have also decided to continue cooperation over the speedy transfer of wartime operational control, contingent upon certain conditions, to the South Korean military. A precondition that needs to be met for this to happen: it requires South Korea to continue to develop and expand its core military capabilities, such as the mutually operable Kill Chain and KAMD systems[vi]. These are deemed necessary for the ROK Army to lead the joint defense process, and safeguard, detect, disrupt, and destroy North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. Agreeing to mobilize all available national resources toward enhancing their respective capabilities for extended deterrence against North Korea, Presidents Moon and Trump reaffirmed their resolve to strengthen cooperation with Japan so as to better deter North Korea’s threats.
Peace Initiatives and “Simultaneous Cessation”
Having obtained President Trump’s consent to South Korea’s leadership over the negotiations with North Korea, President Moon boldly announced his peace initiatives at the G20 Summit in Berlin, despite North Korea’s decision to launch and test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) after the Moon-Trump summit. Now that he confirmed in this announcement[vii] “that if the right conditions are met, the United States, China, and the rest of the international community are keeping the door open for dialogue at any time,” President Moon exhorted Kim Jong-un to “fully stop… nuclear provocations and come out to the forum of bilateral and multilateral dialogue on denuclearization.” He warned Pyongyang that, as long as it insists on continuing nuclear provocations, it leaves the international community “no other choice but to further strengthen sanctions and pressure.” While President Moon articulated the need to adopt a more comprehensive approach to the North Korean nuclear problem and the peace-building regime, with a view to achieving “the conclusion of a peace treaty along with complete denuclearization,” he has yet to specify what the “right conditions” would be, and what South Korea and the United States could offer to North Korea in exchange for its agreement to freeze its nuclear and missile tests. President Moon did suggest a reunion of the war-separated families, North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, a mutual agreement to disengage from hostile activities along the Military Demarcation Line, and a South-North dialogue for peace and cooperation. President Moon subsequently proposed a military talk and meetings between Red Cross officials. Pyongyang refrained from making any response to this offer, and reacted to it instead by testing the launching of an upgraded ICBM-class missile on July 29.
Some speculate that Pyongyang proceeded with its repeated missile tests and avoided giving an official answer to Seoul’s offer because the Moon administration had refused to accept North Korea’s demand, since 2014, for the cessation or reduction of the joint ROK-USA military exercises. Not only North Korea, but also China and Russia, some of the policy advisors to President Moon, and Korean NGOs have consistently argued that both South and North Korea should withdraw from the joint ROK-USA military exercises and cease nuclear and missile experiments respectively and simultaneously in order for the two Koreas to resume dialogue. That South Korea already spends more than North Korea’s GDP on its defense — in addition to the cost of supporting U.S. troops stationed in South Korea — and continues to enhance its extended deterrence through conventional and nuclear means as well as large-scale military exercises, strengthens Pyongyang’s obsession with asymmetric capabilities, such as nuclear weapons. Some also believe that the renewed agreement between Seoul and Washington to maintain the existing sanctions against North Korea and mobilize their respective national resources toward reinforcing extended deterrence has further provoked North Korea. In other words, the insistence of Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo on maintaining their military strategies resorting to nuclear deterrence and missile defense systems justifies North Korea’s obsession with expanding its nuclear and missile arsenal. Knowing that South Korea and the United States can introduce few additional sanctions without China’s help, North Korea will likely focus on expanding its “irreversible” nuclear and missile capabilities before the Moon-Trump alliance begins to exert pressure toward resuming negotiations.
In sum, the Moon administration has apparently failed to offer unequivocal and justified measures for reducing mutual threats that would be crucial to bring North Korea to the negotiation table before North Korea makes its nuclear and ICBM arsenal a fait accompli. The Moon administration has failed to offer effective measures of maximum intervention aside from the sanctions already imposed against North Korea.
The Deployment of the THAAD System and ROK-USA-Japan Military Cooperation
The road ahead for relations with neighboring countries still remains rocky for the Moon administration. This is mainly because the Korea-Japan agreement on victims of Japanese military sexual slavery, the Korea-Japan Agreement on the Security of Military Information, and the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system that the Park administration single-handedly decided on in a matter of several months from 2015 to 2016, have resulted in a backlash of public opinion and in the relations with other countries. Despite the severe public opposition and the risks they posed of souring relations with other neighboring countries, the Park administration went ahead with signing these agreements without seeking the understanding or consent of the National Assembly. This engendered legal controversies as well. The package of these agreements was instrumental to the goal of coopting South Korea into the USA-Japan-led missile defense system and elevating the status of ROK-USA-Japan military cooperation into a de-facto military alliance. As such, it caused tension with China and North Korea.
The Moon administration criticized the Park administration for its blatant neglect of the democratic process in deciding on the deployment of the THAAD system. Yet the Moon administration has not reversed the decision, opting instead to delay the deployment by conducting an environmental impact assessment and affirming to Washington that it would respect the agreements reached between Washington and the Park administration. Now that North Korea has repeatedly tested its ICBM-class missile systems however; President Moon has agreed to authorize the deployment of four more THAAD launchers in addition to the two already installed. Although President Moon had pledged to revisit the Korea-Japan agreement on the victims of Japanese military sexual slavery throughout his presidential campaign, the Moon administration has not yet articulated any position on other recent agreements with Japan, such as the ones on the sharing of military information with Japan and joint military exercises between ROK-USA-Japan, that continue to raise tensions in Northeast Asia. President Moon also remains undecided on the Abe government’s continued pursuit of Japan’s right to military self-defense. The incorporation of South Korea into the USA-led missile defense system over Asia-Pacific and the strengthening of military cooperation with the United States and Japan would provoke China further, weakening Beijing’s resolve to cooperate with the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
The Moon administration, which came to power amid huge popular support, organized and mobilized by the candlelight demonstrations, has openly criticized the “strategic patience” policy of the Park and Obama administrations and brazenly stepped up to the task of restoring South Korea’s leadership over the processes of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and building a peace regime in a comprehensive and step-by-step manner. The Moon administration, however, has yet to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ICBM ambitions. Nor has President Moon gained strong and sufficient assurance from Washington.
As the Moon administration began to shape its foreign and security policies amid circumstances that could not be worse, it may need to embrace an even more macro-level and comprehensive approach to stemming North Korea’s nuclear threats, by going over and beyond the abandonment of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and addressing the multilayered structure of military tension in Northeast Asia. In other words, it may benefit from shifting the course of its strategy, from peacebuilding through denuclearization to peacebuilding for denuclearization. Moreover, the Moon administration may need to propose more specific and unambiguous steps — measures for mutual trust, such as reducing the joint ROK-USA military exercises and disarmament — in order to persuade Pyongyang to refrain from deploying its nuclear weapons and ICBMs, which have already come at a huge military, economic, and political cost for North Korea. The Moon administration should also prioritize introducing and enhancing democratic control over military cooperation with the United States and Japan, despite the justification provided by North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. The uncompromising emphasis on “strong security” could make it more difficult for the Moon administration to take more practical and effective approaches to building peace on the Korean Peninsula.
[i] As one of the main reasons for impeaching Park Geun-hye, the National Assembly explicitly stated in its impeachment bill that Park had failed “to fulfill her duty to protect the lives of citizens” in the sinking of the ferry Sewol. The Constitutional Court did rule in favor of impeaching Park, but did not accept this particular reason as a valid ground for impeachment, citing “the lack of evidence.” However, the Constitutional Court did find the Park administration’s making of a “black list” against personages critical of Park and abuse of power toward covering up the truth of the Sewol tragedy and silencing dissent as legitimate grounds for impeachment.
[ii] “deobul-eominjudang daeseongong-yagjib choejongpan” [Democratic Party of Korea Presidential Election Campaign Pledge], April 28 2017, http://theminjoo.kr/President/noticeDetail.do?bd_seq=65855.
[iii] Also from Pledge Document listed in previous footnote.
[iv] Berlin Peace Initiatives’ — ‘Korea Peninsula Peace Initiative’, a package proposal to North Korea authority for making peace in Korean peninsula by President Moon on July 6, 2017 in Berlin,
[v] James Oliphant and Ben Blanchard, “Trump warns ‘fire and fury’ if North Korea threatens U.S., Pyongyang weighs Guam strike”, Reuters, August 9, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/northkorea-missiles-idUSL4N1KU4QA.
[vi] Jun Ji-hye, “3 military systems to counter N. Korea: Kill Chain, KAMD, KMPR”, The Korea Times, November 1, 2016, http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2016/11/205_217259.html.
[vii] Bae Hyun-jung, “Full text of Moon’s speech at the Korber Foundation” (Cheong Wa Dae’s unofficial translation), The Korea Herald, July 7, 2017, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20170707000032.