South Korea: Under Pressure from Washington and Beijing and Sharply Divided as Its Presidential Election Approaches


As North Korea pushes ahead with its nuclear and missile development programs, the new administration in Washington is taking a hard line, suggesting that even a military strike is among the options. South Korean President Park Geun-hye was removed from office in March, and the campaign to choose her successor in the upcoming May 9 election has heated up. Public opinion is sharply split with regard to defense and foreign policy. Meanwhile, the government in Seoul is effectively paralyzed.

The Possible Advent of a North-Leaning Administration in Seoul

Every Saturday the plaza in front of Seoul City Hall has been filled with citizens waving small South Korean flags and chanting slogans opposing the March ouster and subsequent arrest of former President Park Geun-hye, calling it a political plot designed to please North Korea. The “flag rally” protest gatherings have continued on into April.

Opposition to Park surged after it was revealed last October that she had allowed a close friend to become improperly involved in government affairs. Left-leaning citizens’ groups and radical labor unions coordinated a campaign that arranged demonstrations in central Seoul every weekend demanding that Park step down. A series of further revelations of influence peddling involving the president’s friend fueled popular anger at her and led many ordinary citizens to take part in the weekly protests, holding candles in their hands. According to police reports, the number of participants rose to 320,000 on one weekend. But these “candle rallies” have been shrinking, while the “flag rallies” of Park’s supporters have grown, reportedly surpassing size of the anti-Park events early this year.

As of late last year support for President Park had fallen below 5%, and even long-term backers had become disappointed and disillusioned with her, saying that they were ashamed to publicly admit they were conservatives. Why are many citizens now coming out to wave their flags for her?

Back then, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea, the top opposition force, held a solid lead in popular support to become the next president, and his election was widely seen as certain. This caused alarm among older citizens who ordinarily would not think of taking to the streets. While admitting that President Park was not completely innocent, they feared that the untrammeled rise of the pro–North Korean forces behind the mass anti-Park demonstrations could lead to national doom for South Korea.

Moon Jae-in initially declared that if elected he would visit North Korea before the United States and would move to reopen the Kaesong industrial park, a North-South cooperative endeavor that the South Korean government closed down in February 2016 in protest against a North Korean nuclear bomb test and missile launch. South Korean and US intelligence agencies had concluded that the North’s earnings from Kaesong, along with the income from tourist visits to Mount Kumgang (suspended in 2008), had been used to advance the North’s nuclear and missile development programs. A former official in the South Korean government suggested that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, facing a shortage of foreign currency as a result of tightened international sanctions, must be looking forward to the start of a Moon Jae-in presidency.

Since the beginning of April, there has been a sharp rise in support for Ahn Cheol-soo, chairman of the middle-of-the-road People’s Party, the second-largest opposition force. This is seen as coming from conservatives who see the ruling-party candidate struggling in the face of the scandals that caused Park’s fall from grace and are determined to block Moon Jae-in’s election.

The People’s Party was established around a core of supporters of former President Kim Dae-jung, who adopted a conciliatory stance toward Pyongyang. They split from the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, predecessor of the current Democratic Party of Korea. Conservatives bear a grudge against Ahn for joining forces with the opposition to Park Geun-hye in the last presidential election, which Park won by only a tiny margin, but this time around they have apparently decided that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Whichever candidate wins, however, there is no prospect for an end to the rift in South Korean popular opinion.

Pressure from China, Strains on the Alliance with the United States

Meanwhile, South Korea is now encountering ever-growing pressure from both China and the United States, the two countries with the biggest bearing on its future.

In order to defend the South from the danger of ballistic missile attack from the North, Seoul and Washington have agreed to deploy the United States’ advanced Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system in South Korea. Ahn has voiced his approval for installation of the THAAD system, but Moon has until recently been calling for its reconsideration, showing a tilt toward China, which has expressed its vehement opposition to the deployment. Meanwhile, the United States, concerned about possible trouble to come, preemptively commenced the delivery of THAAD-related hardware in March, thereby showing its resolve both to China and to members of the China-friendly camp in South Korea.

The administration of President Xi Jinping has demanded that Seoul revoke the agreement, viewing the installation of THAAD in South Korea as part of the effort by the United States and Japan to strengthen their defenses against China as a potential foe. Beijing has backed the pressure with economic sanctions, such as restrictions on the activities of South Korean entertainers in China and a ban on sales of South Korea–bound tours. Under President Park, South Korea moved closer to China, attempting to be friends with both that country and the United States. President Xi is determined to not let the South Koreans reverse this stance and turn their backs on China.

China’s highhanded approach has given rise to anti-Chinese sentiment in South Korea, but this sentiment has not led to big protests such as have previously been directed against the United States and Japan. One reason for this difference is that the South Koreans sense that going against China is liable to provoke a fearsome response. This may be related to Korea’s long history as a Chinese vassal state.

In China, the drive to boycott South Korean products is continuing, and this has dealt a blow to South Korea’s economy, which is heavily dependent on exports to its giant neighbor. And people’s worries have been heightened by the sudden disappearance of Chinese visitors from Seoul’s tourist spots. These worries may have an impact on the national mood leading up to the presidential election.

In an article that appeared in the daily Chosun Ilbo on April 3, Kim Tae-hyo, a senior security aide to former President Lee Myung-bak (whose administration took a pro-US line), reported on his visit to Washington in late March. Meeting with officials involved in shaping US foreign policy, he found that they were all concerned not so much about what North Korea might do next but about the US–South Korea relationship. Kim warned that this relationship would inevitably deteriorate if Moon were to become president. The Americans are telling the South Koreans not to betray them further.

The Possibility of a US Strike on the North

At the recent US-China summit, conducted at a time when the government in Seoul was paralyzed by a combination of domestic and international problems, President Donald Trump told President Xi that if China did not cooperate in dealing with North Korea, the United States would act on its own to settle the matter. And in his phone conversation with Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzō just before the summit, Trump told him that “all options” were on the table, reaffirming his readiness even to take military action against North Korea.

Trump’s message was aimed both at shaking up North Korea by hinting at the possibility of US military action and at getting China, which has considerable power to influence the North Koreans, to get serious about solving the problem. Depending on the attitude Pyongyang displays, there is still some possibility of a diplomatic solution, but we can be sure that the United States is now making preparations for last-resort action, such as a preemptive strike on the North’s nuclear or missile facilities or a surgical operation to eliminate Kim Jong-un and the current top leadership so as to achieve a change of regime in Pyongyang.

In 1994, when Bill Clinton was president, the United States considered bombing North Korea’s nuclear facility at Yongbyon. But the plan was rejected in view of the prospect of a counterattack from the North that could send Seoul up in flames and cause more than a million South Korean fatalities. Washington was also concerned that it would not have enough time to evacuate its own citizens living in South Korea. The crisis was ultimately defused by a visit to Pyongyang by former US President Jimmy Carter, who met with North Korean leader Kim Il-sung and secured a promise from him that the North would put its nuclear development program on hold.

The prevailing view within the South Korean government, as expressed by an official familiar with the situation in 1994, is that a preemptive attack on North Korea is not a realistic option as it would cause massive human losses and could easily escalate into an all-out war.

But North Korea is now believed to have succeeded at producing nuclear warheads small enough to be mounted atop missiles, and it has stepped up its drive to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the continental United States. The threat is incomparably greater than it was during the earlier crisis, and the authorities in Tokyo, Washington, and Seoul agree that very little time remains before the North becomes capable of launching ICBMs carrying nuclear payloads. So the situation is highly volatile.

US Bases in Japan Likely to Be Targeted

When I ask local people on the streets of Seoul about the threat from the North, I find that they seem to have become desensitized by the repeated nuclear tests and missile launches and tend to express the view that the North Koreans would never launch a nuclear attack on their fellow Koreans in the South. Many assert that the cause of the heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula is the hard line taken by the Park administration, saying that North-South dialogue is the top priority.

If fighting were to break out on the Korean Peninsula, the North would be likely not just to attack the South but also to heavily bombard the US military bases in Japan with ballistic missiles. Some of the missiles could even be carrying chemical weapons like VX nerve gas. The South Koreans seem to have a serious case of peace-induced complacency, but we in Japan cannot dismiss the situation as one that does not concern us directly.

(Originally published in Japanese on April 14, 2017. Banner photo: Flag-waving citizens rally in Seoul on April 1 to demand the release of former President Park Geun-hye. © Jiji.)

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