A Changing East Asia

Prospects for Change on the Korean Peninsula


North Korea’s new supreme leader has delighted the global media with enthusiasm for theme parks and Disney characters, but his enthusiasm for genuine reform and détente are harder to gauge. Nishino Jun’ya of Keiō University assesses the prospects for real progress on the Korean Peninsula, focusing on the foreign policies outlined by South Korea’s three major presidential candidates.

On April 15, 2012, four months after the death of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il, his son and successor Kim Jong-un delivered his first public address at a military parade commemorating the 100th birthday of founding leader Kim Il-sung. In his speech, Kim Jong-un left little doubt of his regime's intent to carry on his predecessors’ policy of focusing government resources on the military:

“The long-term strategic plan for our revolution and its ultimate victory depend on continuing straight along the path of independence, the path of military-first, and the path of socialism laid out by the great Comrade Kim Il-sung and Comrade Kim Jong-il. To ensure that the dignity of our military-first Korea shines down through the ages and succeed in our great undertaking of building a powerful socialist state, our first, second, and third priorities must be to strengthen the people’s army in every way.”

In fact, this was by no means the first indication of the new administration’s deference to established policy. The (unsuccessful) test launch of a long-range missile—referred to by Pyongyang as a satellite launch—two days before the military parade was doubtless preordained by plans adopted before Kim Jong-il’s death, as hinted in a March 23 article in the Workers’ Party of Korea mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun.

The international community was particularly disappointed by the launch, as it contravened an agreement between the new regime and the United States, which was reached just weeks before at the end of February. In the agreement Pyongyang agreed to continue nuclear negotiations and temporarily halt uranium enrichment and missile tests in return for 240,000 tons of food aid from the United States. After the launch, the United Nations Security Council adopted a harshly worded statement condemning North Korea’s actions. It is worth noting, however, that some media outlets reported on the possibility of such an agreement between Washington and Pyongyang back in December 2011, just before Kim Jong-il’s death. Given the evidence, it seems probable that both the agreement and the missile launch that violated it were simply the implementation of decisions made prior to Kim Jong-un’s rise to power.

Grounds for Hope?

Despite this apparent determination to carry out the instructions of his departed father, Kim Jong-un has presented the world with a new style of North Korean leadership. The international media have reveled in photos of Kim enjoying himself at an amusement park with his wife and riding on a roller coaster with his aunt, along with television footage of the supreme leader appearing in public amid an entourage of Disney characters. The question is whether these superficial indications of a more relaxed, open-minded approach to leadership presage any substantive change in policy.

One early indicator of the new regime’s zeal for reform will be the extent to which it follows through on new economic measures announced earlier this year. One of these is a group of experimental reforms called the “June 28 measures,” said to be under way in select regions since about the middle of the year. (The reforms are aimed at providing incentives for higher labor productivity by shifting management of farms from collectives to families, letting farmers keep a larger share of their yield, and allowing factories and business greater independence.) The other is a program of economic cooperation with China in the border region, a key topic of discussion during the Beijing visit of government strongman Jang Sung-taek (Kim Jong-un’s uncle) in mid-August.

In the April 15 speech quoted above, Kim Jong-un implicitly acknowledged the need to rebuild the economy. “Our party is firmly resolved to ensure that our people . . . enjoy all the wealth and prosperity socialism has to offer and never again be obliged to tighten their belts,” he declared. “Comrade Kim Jong-il has planted the seeds for the creation of an economic power and higher living standards for the people, and we must nurture those precious seeds until they may bloom into a glorious reality.”

But Pyongyang has to realize that to seriously rebuild the failing North Korean economy, it will need broad-based assistance from the international community as a whole, not just China. And it must realize as well that until North Korea abandons its nuclear weapons program, the most it can expect from the rest of the international community is humanitarian aid in a very limited scale. It is much too soon to say whether the new government seeks to chart a new course on foreign policy and nuclear weapons as well as the economy. All we can say with relative assurance is that it hopes to take maximum advantage of any changes in regional leadership and shifts in the international climate that occur over the coming months.

Winds of Change in North-South Relations

While improving relations with Washington to ensure the regime’s stability remains a key foreign policy objective for Pyongyang, the major focus of diplomatic activity in the coming months is likely to be relations with Seoul. Ties between the North and the South have continued to deteriorate since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office in February 2008. But a new South Korean president will be elected on December 19, 2012, and each of the three major candidates for the post has called for a return to dialogue with the North.

As of this writing at the end of October 2012, the leading presidential contenders are Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party (the main opposition party), and independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo. The results of a recent poll indicated that Park would have a clear advantage in a three-way battle, but that voter support would be more or less evenly divided between Park and the opposition if Moon and Ahn agreed to join forces. Under the circumstances, the outcome is impossible to predict.

Park Geun-hye, the eldest daughter of former South Korean President Park Chung-hee, is a mainstream conservative candidate. Moon Jae-in, who served as chief of staff to former President Roh Moo-hyun, is a clear choice for progressives; and Ahn Cheol-soo, a former entrepreneur and professor at Seoul National University, is the candidate of choice for South Korea’s independent voters. Still, on the fundamental need to reengage North Korea, all three are in broad agreement. The source of this unanimity is public opinion. A kind of national consensus has emerged that the next administration (which will take office on February 25, 2013) must adopt a more flexible line toward Pyongyang and resume dialogue and exchange. Simply put, the public is dissatisfied with the current policy toward North Korea and eager for a change.

Park Geun-hye's Trustpolitik

President Lee Myung-bak came to power highly critical of the “sunshine policy” of presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. He believed that their policy of active dialogue, exchange, and cooperation with North Korea had amounted to nothing more than unilateral aid to the North, and further, that it had allowed Pyongyang to forge ahead with its nuclear weapons program. Operating on this premise, he took the position that South Korea should offer no further cooperation or assistance to the North until Pyongyang made definitive moves to dismantle its nuclear program. Although the opposition criticized Lee relentlessly for his “hard line” stance toward North Korea, the administration found justification for its adherence to principle in repeated acts of provocation from the North, including the killing of a South Korean tourist near Mount Kumgang in July 2008, a missile launch in April 2009, and a nuclear test (North Korea's second) in May 2009. But the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan in March 2010 and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in November the same year—incidents resulting in multiple South Korean casualties—seem to have convinced the South Korean people of the need to defuse tensions and stabilize relations between the two Koreas even while strengthening security to deter acts of military provocation.

The first of the three candidates to outline a policy reflecting this national consensus was Park Geun-hye. In an article in the September-October 2011 issue of the American journal Foreign Affairs, Park set forth a blueprint for inter-Korean relations using the buzzwords “trustpolitik” and “policy of alignment.” The plan stresses trust building with the North and calls for “aligning South Korea's security with its cooperation with the North and inter-Korean dialogue with parallel international efforts.”

Park amplified her position in an address titled the “The Trust-Building Process on the Korean Peninsula” delivered near the end of February 2012. Arguing that “the North Korean nuclear problem must be approached on the understanding that its resolution is integral to the North Korean issue and the larger issue of peace in Northeast Asia,” she called for mutual adherence to existing North-South agreements and resumption and continuation of humanitarian aid and reciprocal exchange programs regardless of political circumstances. In addition, she expressed her support for a wider range of economic cooperation programs, including projects involving third countries, provided North-South trust-building measures bore fruit. As she put it, this “trust-building process on the Korean Peninsula will hasten progress toward resolving the North Korean nuclear problem, while progress toward resolving the nuclear problem will add momentum to the trust-building process.”

Moon Jae-in’s Roadmap

Meanwhile, United Democratic Party candidate Moon Jae-in, who has been scathing in his criticism of the current administration’s policy, has put forth his own North Korea plan. The two planks of Moon’s policy are an updated version of the Inter-Korean Economic Union initially proposed by Roh Moo-hyun and a “Korean Peninsula peace process” aimed at establishing a peace regime. On the economic side, Moon emphasizes resumption and expansion of the North-South economic exchange and cooperation programs agreed on at two inter-Korean summits (June 2000 and October 2007) but suspended after the Lee administration took power in 2008. He also calls for lifting the “May 24 sanctions” imposed on North Korea following the sinking of the Cheonan, reopening Mount Kumgang to tourism for the first time since the summer of 2008, and adopting a five-year Inter-Korean Economic Union plan including expansion of the Kaesong Industrial Park, a collaborative development project located in North Korea. Altogether, it is an ambitious concept aimed at the creation of a common market and ultimately full-scale economic unification.

Moon would also like to follow through on the West Sea Peace and Cooperation Zone encompassing the North Korean port of Haeju and vicinity, one of the centerpieces of the agreement produced by the 2007 inter-Korean summit. However, this could be difficult to pull off, given the precarious security situation that has prevailed along the western coast near the disputed Northern Limit Line ever since the North’s bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island. In addition, Moon has called for two multilateral initiatives: a Northeast Asia Cooperation and Growth Belt centered on the Korean Peninsula and an international Korean Peninsula Infrastructure Development Organization to help build the foundation for North Korea’s industrial development. Needless to say, these cannot proceed without the agreement and cooperation of other countries in the region.

Moon announced his initiative for a Korean Peninsula peace process at an event held on October 4, 2012, to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the 2007 joint declaration by Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il. The initiative sets forth three principles for resolving the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula: zero tolerance for nuclear weapons; compliance with the six-party joint statement of September 2005; and comprehensive, fundamental solutions. It also offered the first concrete roadmap for addressing the nuclear crisis while simultaneously laying the foundation for a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. Under this timetable, Moon would meet with top US and Chinese leaders to iron out a peace plan by the summer of 2013 and take part in an inter-Korean summit by the end of the same year. The goal for 2014 is a “joint statement on peace and nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula” by the leaders of the six parties and creation of an organization to oversee implementation of the declaration.

In a panel discussion during the aforementioned October 4 event, Moon stressed the importance of maintaining diplomatic momentum during the protracted process of building a peace regime to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War. He advocated beginning with a “joint declaration ending the state of war” and then setting to work simultaneously on a peace treaty, resolution of the nuclear issue, and expansion of North-South relations. The emphasis on speed doubtless reflects bitter lessons learned during the administration of Roh Moo-hyun, which failed to make lasting progress owing to delays in implementing the 2005 six-party joint statement and the fact that the second inter-Korean summit did not take place until the last few months of Roh’s term in office.

Ahn Cheol-soo’s Business-Driven Plan

Independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, who jumped into the presidential race in late September, has outlined an economically oriented policy that emphasizes inter-Korean cooperation and the development of an uncontested “blue ocean” market space in the form of a “northern economy.” Ahn says his three priorities for inter-Korean economic cooperation would be boosting small business, creating institutional frameworks for North-South economic cooperation, and forging partnerships for the development of northeastern China and the Russian Far East. He has also proposed three major programs in connection with his “northern economy” initiative: (1) building a northern distribution network centered on an integrated continental rail system, (2) building a northern energy-and-resource silk road, and (3) promoting northern agricultural cooperation. Ahn’s position is distinguished by three factors. First is his emphasis on institutions to guarantee the continuity of inter-Korean economic cooperation regardless of changes in the political climate. Second is his notion of expanding the concept of economic cooperation to include China and Russia as well as North Korea. Third is his focus on boosting small business to create jobs and power a new era of economic growth in South Korea.

With respect to the nuclear problem, Ahn has yet to put forth any concrete new ideas. In his recent book Ahn Cheol-soo eui saenggak (Ahn Cheol-soo's Thoughts), published in July 2012, he writes that he would use the framework of the six-party talks to search for a solution to the nuclear problem, but stresses the need to “enlarge the window of interaction through economic cooperation between North and South” and the importance of continuing to pursue serious bilateral dialogue even while abiding by the roadmap agreed on in multilateral talks. “Only by creating a space for North-South dialogue and building an enduring peace regime,” he writes, “can we negate North Korea's official justification for relying on nuclear weapons.” Ahn’s statements on the subject of relations with North Korea have a good deal in common with the policies outlined by Moon Jae-in, and this is not surprising, inasmuch as both candidates’ top foreign policy advisors formerly played key policy-making roles in the Roh Moo-hyun administration.

Three Trends to Watch

Leaving aside the situation with the presidential election in South Korea, three key factors will determine the outlook for change on the Korean Peninsula in the coming months and years: the range and pace of initiatives for inter-Korean dialogue and economic cooperation, the success of efforts to halt the North’s nuclear weapons program, and the broader international environment.

North-South Dialogue and the Scope for Economic Aid

With regard to dialogue and cooperation, a government headed by Moon Jae-in can be expected to make vigorous overtures toward the North and strive for rapid progress on wide-ranging inter-Korean dialogue and economic cooperation. The springboard for progress will be implementation of the agreements reached at the 2007 inter-Korean summit. Ahn Cheol-soo appears equally eager to move forward on economic cooperation.

Unfortunately, it could be difficult garnering public support for economic aid to the North at this stage. While there is a broad national consensus on the need for dialogue to defuse military tensions, how far to pursue economic cooperation is a point on which debate is likely to sharpen following the election. Moreover, given the virtual parity between the ruling party and the opposition in the National Assembly since last April’s general election—a situation bound to persist until the 2016 election—one cannot rule out the possibility of an extended domestic battle over policies toward North Korea. Ahn in particular could face an immediate setback if his plans to institutionalize economic cooperation with the North fail to win the National Assembly's approval.

Park Geun-hye, meanwhile, has indicated that her administration would proceed cautiously, expanding economic cooperation only after trust-building measures had borne fruit. But unless the administration moves fairly quickly on issues like the May 24 sanctions, it could miss the window of opportunity for détente with the North. In addition, “aligning South Korea's security with its cooperation with the North” may prove more difficult in practice than in theory. Indeed, this will be a major challenge for South Korea’s next administration, regardless of who heads it.

How to Denuclearize North Korea

With regard to the nuclear threat, the next South Korean administration needs to proceed while recognizing that North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear program during the administration of President Lee, who built his entire North Korea Policy around the goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. This is evident from the nuclear test the North conducted in May 2009 and the new uranium enrichment facilities it unveiled in November 2010.

Moon’s Korean Peninsula peace process takes as its starting point the 2005 six-party joint statement and the two 2007 agreements its implementation. But Moon realizes that a new six-party agreement of some sort will be essential, given that North Korea continued its development of nuclear weapons after the six-party talks were suspended—hence his call for a joint statement by the six heads of state some time in 2014. But Seoul has relinquished what influence it had with the North by suspending bilateral dialogue and exchange. Under the circumstances, will a young administration be able to exert the kind of regional leadership needed to orchestrate a new six-party agreement? If it can, then we may again witness the kind of dynamic diplomacy that occurred before and after the June 2000 inter-Korean summit between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il.

Ahn has also expressed a determination to establish a stable peace regime to replace the current armistice as soon as possible, suggesting that he, like Moon, would be willing to begin work on such a regime even in the midst of ongoing efforts to resolve the nuclear issue. Park, on the other hand, has made no specific mention of a peace treaty or a shift to a peace regime. While she has shown herself more open to dialogue with the North than Lee Myung-bak, her call to “align inter-Korean dialogue with parallel international efforts” suggests an affinity with Lee’s focus on coordinating with the international community, particularly the United States. “Seoul has to mobilize the international community to help it dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear program,” she wrote in her Foreign Affairs article. In short, while acknowledging the need for a departure from the current administration’s policy, Park advocates a gradual, cautious approach. This suggests that, if she is elected president, progress in denuclearization will depend primarily on North Korea’s actions and the international situation.

International Dynamics Surrounding the Koreas

This brings us to the third determinant mentioned above—international circumstances, particularly relations between China and the United States. Friendly relations between Beijing and Washington are basically a positive thing for the stability of the Korean Peninsula. On the other hand, continued friction between China and the United States against the background of China’s growing power could complicate both Koreas’ relations with these two superpowers. The administration of Lee Myung-bak succeeded in strengthening South Korea’s alliance with the United States, but relations between Seoul and Beijing have suffered during his term. And South Korea can hardly afford to neglect relations with China, given its role as a signatory to the Korean War armistice agreement, North Korea’s key ally, and a participant in the six-party framework.

One major difference between Park Geun-hye and her opponents may be the relative emphasis they would place on ties with Washington and Beijing. At a trilateral forum in mid-October, Park said, “I don't think China's rise is incompatible with American policy in East Asia. . . . It's not a matter of choosing one or the other. The United States is our comprehensive ally, while China is our cooperative partner.” Ahn Cheol-soo spoke to the same issue in his recent book, saying, “The South Korea–US alliance is important, and for the sake of both sides we need to build the kind of relationship that can endure. However, we must strive to maintain some sort of balance in our ties with China and the United States and not be excessively biased toward one or the other.” If we can judge by the foreign policy of former President Roh Moo-hyun, Moon Jae-in would be inclined to replace the current administration’s US-oriented policy with a more balanced approach.

Yet whoever wins the coming election will almost certainly spearhead a shift from the current “Global Korea” policy, with its emphasis on enhancing South Korea’s prestige in the global community, to a sharper focus on Northeast Asian diplomacy aimed at resolving the North Korean problem. In the coming months, Japan, as a setting for such diplomatic initiatives, will have the opportunity to play a constructive if modest role in helping to determine the fate of the Korean Peninsula.


After this article was written at the end of October, Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo agreed to join forces and register a single candidate before the official registration dates of November 25 and 26. Then on November 23, Ahn Cheol-soo officially withdrew, leaving the contest between Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in.

(Originally written in Japanese.)

United States China politics Russia East Asia North Korea Kim Jong-il Kim Jong-un South Korea six-party talks international relations Korean Peninsula Lee Myung-bak Park Geun-hye Northeast Asia