Sejong Digest 2.0 - Issue 2 (Nov 1 - 14, 2016)

Welcome to the second edition of Sejong Digest 2.0, a biweekly brief covering the latest news and discussion on Korea and Northeast Asia, as well as Korea-related goings-on in the DC area. The Sejong Society’s Director of Research, Benjamin Lee, selects and summarizes major news in the Korean Peninsula every two weeks to keep you up-to-date on the region’s most important issues. Past issues of Sejong Digest 2.0 will be archived on our site.

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News, Analysis, & Commentary

1. What Does a Trump Presidency Mean for South Korea?

On November 8th, Republican Presidential candidate Donald J. Trump was elected to become the 45th President of the United States. A burning question for the Asia policy community is what a President Trump means for the region.

First, Trump is expected to reset U.S.’s approach to North Korea. Trump’s close policy advisor Peter Navarro judges Obama’s “strategic patience” to be failed policy and instead advocates “peace through strength” in Asia, in his latest piece in
Foreign Policy. Although Navarro does not go into detail, the incoming Trump administration is likely to change its approach toward North Korea. On the campaign trail, Trump floated the idea of a summit with Kim Jong-un, at which the two would discuss North Korea’s nuclear weapons program (while eating hamburgers). Trump has also repeatedly referred to North Korea as “China’s baby” and made a promise to give greater responsibility to China when it comes to the North Korean problem.

Furthermore, the Trump administration is likely to ask South Korea to take on a
greater share of the financial burden for maintaining U.S. troops in South Korea. Throughout the campaign, Trump indicated his dissatisfaction over U.S.’s commitment of military and financial resources to its allies. He even suggested that he would consider pulling the troops out of South Korea if the latter refused to bear a greater portion of the cost. Trump stated that U.S. allies, including South Korea, need to “protect themselves or pay us [the U.S.]” As of 2014, South Korea is responsible for paying 42 percent of the total expenditure associated with U.S. troops in South Korea, or approximately KRW 920 billion (roughly USD 800 million). Trump and Navarro emphasize the fact that South Korea is an advanced industrial economy that can pay for much more than what it currently does.

Trump made contradictory statements on the issue of South Korea’s potential acquisition of nuclear weapons on the campaign trail. He stated that he
“hates nuclear [proliferation] more than any,” but he also predicted that South Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapon would take place, regardless of U.S.’s stance on the issue, due to increased threats from the North. Trump’s stance on reducing the U.S. military presence in Korea is expected to renew the debate over South Korea’s nuclear option in the upcoming presidential cycle in South Korea.

Meanwhile, President Park Geun-hye convened an
emergency meeting of South Korea’s National Security Council to discuss the potential impact of Trump’s election on the U.S.-Korea alliance. She also gave President-elect Trump a phone call, during which he reportedly assured President Park that the U.S. will work with South Korea “until the end” for the security of both countries. During a joint meeting between the government and the ruling Saenuri Party on November 9th, South Korean foreign minister Yun Byung-se stated that “the incoming U.S. administration will continue to apply pressure on North Korea.”He also added that South Korea will reach out to Trump’s transition team, especially to the individuals who handle the national security portfolio.

2. No Exit from “Choi Soon-sil Gate” for President Park Geun-hye

Despite President Park Geun-hye’s attempts to contain “Choi Soon-sil Gate”— the political scandal involving her alleged reliance on an individual outside of her government on national matters—there seems to be no end in sight.

On November 2nd, President Park
reshuffled her cabinet and nominated a new prime minister, Kim Byong-joon, who served former president Roh Moo-hyun as chief policy secretary. Opposition parties immediately rejected Park’s nomination and declared that they would not hold a hearing for the new nominee.

On November 4th, President Park issued a
second apology, whereby she expressed that she would accept a subpoena for a special prosecutor’s investigation into the issue. Opposition politicians have criticized her apology as an emotional appeal to contain the scandal; they have also criticized President Park for not disclosing the details of the scandal in full. President Park’s two public apologies did little to allay the frustration of South Koreans.

On November 6th, Senior Secretary to the President for Civil Affairs Woo Byong-woo was
summoned as a suspect in connection with the Choi Soon-sil investigation. Woo, a former prosecutor himself with extensive ties to the leadership of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, appears to have received special treatment during the investigation. The Chosun Ilbo, a prominent Korean newspaper, released a photo of Woo during his summoning, sitting comfortably in his seat and laughing visibly. This photo raised questions over whether the prosecutor could conduct an independent investigation.

On November 8th, President Park indicated that she would
withdraw her nomination of Kim Byong-joon for the premiership and hand over cabinet nomination authority to the National Assembly, expressing hope that the ruling and opposition parties could agree on a nominee. Opposition politicians took to the hallways of the National Assembly to protest and demanded Park’s immediate resignation.

On November 12th, nearly one million South Koreans
protested in front of the Blue House, demanding Park’s resignation. This marked the largest protest since the wave of pro-democracy demonstrations in 1987. Additional protests, organized by civil-society groups, are scheduled for November 19th and 26th.

3. Thwarted Diplomatic Endeavors by President Park?

The calls for President Park’s resignation have raised questions about the implementation of her diplomatic initiatives. President Park has been engaged in negotiations with the U.S. regarding the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea; Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel stated during a State Department press conference that the timeline for THAAD system deployment remains unchanged. Vincent Brooks, Commander of the United States Forces Korea, also indicated that the THAAD system in Korea, expected to be bigger than that in Guam, will be deployed in the next 8-to-10 months.

Prime Minister Abe’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide has not commented on how Park’s political crisis might affect Japan’s agreement with South Korea on the “comfort women” issue, though Abe did reiterate the importance of implementing the agreement. South Korea and Japan are also expected to sign a provisional contract for the General Security of Military Intelligence Agreement,
which would allow both countries to share intelligence on North Korea, on November 14th.

President Park
decided not to attend this November’s APEC meeting in Peru. It remains to be seen whether she will attend the Trilateral Summit meeting between South Korea, China and Japan later this year, to take place in Japan.

Today in History: North Korea’s Underground Tunnels Discovered

On November 15, 1974, Sergeant First Class Koo Jung-sup saw smoke coming out of the ground while patrolling the northern boundary of the North-South Korea military demarcation line. He immediately ordered his troops to excavate the area. What they found was the first underground tunnel—90 centimeters wide, 1.2 meters high, and stretching 3.5 kilometers—that North Korea had dug to channel its troops across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The tunnel was located a mere 65 kilometers from Seoul. The discovery of the underground tunnel completely reversed the spirit of peace on the Korean Peninsula established by the July 4th South-North Joint Communique in 1974. South Korea discovered three more underground tunnels since that time. Today, three of these tunnels are tourist attractions.