President Moon Jae-in's 100th Day Press Conference
On August 18, 2017 South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in held a press conference, marking his 100th day in office. About 189 South Korean journalists and 28 journalists from foreign media outlets participated, where they were given opportunity to speak. The 100th-day press conference has been a tradition by previous administrations, except for President Park Geun-hye’s administration that considered it a “political stunt.”
President Moon spoke on a range of issues, including North Korea. After North Korea’s recent missile test and the ensuing harsh rhetoric between North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un and the U.S. President, Donald Trump, President Moon firmly stated there will be no war on the Korean peninsula. He also affirmedthat the recent international sanctions against North Korea are aimed to prevent war and pressure North Korea to enter negotiations. To him, the U.S. and South Korea share the same goal to pressure North Korea into talks. He also stated that President Trump promised to consult with the Moon administration and seek consent before seeking military action against North Korea on the Korean peninsula. He said that he is certain that the Trump administration will also consult with Moon on military action outside the peninsula. Regarding President Trump’s words that North Korea will be met with “fire and fury,” Moon answered that Trump is only showing determination in pressuring North Korea, has no intent of military action, and that both South Korea and the U.S. are communicating well together on the issue.
President Moon also warned that North Korea is nearing a “red line” which is completing development of a intercontinental ballistic missile and weaponizing it with a nuclear warhead. He said North Korea must prevent further provocations otherwise it will face harsher sanctions. President Moon said if North Korea stops the provocations, inter-Korean dialogue can resume and he will consider sending an envoy to Pyongyang. He also said that there will be no haste in pushing for dialogue unless concrete results can be guaranteed. Thiswas in response to a question about North Korea refusing the Moon administration’s offers last month for military and Red Cross talks, as well as on humanitarian issues like families separated during the Korean War.
On other issues, President Moon stressed the need for strong Japan-South Korea relations but wished to renegotiate past bilateral agreements to have Japan compensate Koreans forced into sexual slavery and forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule in Korea.
President Moon stated that he will push for a referendum on constitutional reform next year and urged the National Assembly to reach a consensus on a bill, and that otherwise the administration will create its own bill. President Moon adopted the call for constitutional reform after Park Geun-hye’s corruption scandal was attributed to centralized presidential power.
He also defended a decision to have a committee to collect public opinion on the construction of the Shin-Kori nuclear power plant in Ulsan. President Moon faced opposition for originally planning to halt the construction and created a committee to select 200-300 South Koreans who will make the decision in October. While the plan was criticized because the people may lack expertise, Moon said the committee’s success can be a democratic model for resolving conflicts. Additionally, Moon emphasized the importance of a free press and independence of the media and promised not to repeat previous administrations attempts to push public broadcasters to promote its interests.
U.S.-Japan "Two-Plus-Two" Security Talks
On August 17, 2017, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis hosted Japanese Foreign Minister Kono and Defense Minister Onodera for a Security Consultative Committee (“2+2”) meeting in Washington. Facing the threat posed by North Korea's missile launches and nuclear ambitions, both sides reaffirmed close bilateral security and defense cooperation and agreed to further put pressure on North Korea to enhance defense capabilities.
The two sides released a joint statement after the talks. In the statement, U.S. and Japan encouraged China to take “decisive measures” to persuade North Korea to stop missile launches and nuclear activities. The joint statement also mentioned that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands “are subject to U.S. defense obligations under Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty,” which Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying expressed serious concerns about.
After the meeting, Mattis said that the U.S. would take immediate actions to take North Korea down if there is a “event of a missile launch towards the territory of Japan, Guam, the United States, [South] Korea.”
Meanwhile, Japan also plans to increase defense budget from fiscal 2019 to fiscal 2023 to ensure funds for advancing measures, such as a new U.S.-developed ground based missile defense system, known as Aegis Ashore. The new defense system will allow Japan to detect ballistic missile launches more accurately to counter the growing threats from North Korea.
U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joe Dunford Travels to Asia
Last week General Joe Dunford, the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, traveled to South Korea, China, and Japan. The trip came as tensions in the region had increased due to North Korea’s recent provocative intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests and threats to shoot missiles in the waters near Guam, a U.S. territory.
In South Korea, during his meeting with President Moon Jae-in, Dunfordemphasized that military options were available if needed, but that the “United States military’s priority is to support our government’s efforts to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through diplomatic and economic pressure.” Before Dunford arrived in South Korea, President Moon issued a statement taking a strong stance against military actions in Korea, saying “there should never be war on the Korean Peninsula again,” and “the North Korean nuclear problem must be resolved peacefully.”
Dunford’s trip was intended to reassure China and American allies after President Trump warned of “fire and fury” against North Korea in an improvised statement. Specifically, Dunford stated that his trip was intended to support Secretary of State Tillerson’s diplomatic and economic campaign to deter North Korea and possibly return to nuclear talks.
In China, Dunford met President Xi Jinping to discuss the North Korean threat. Hours before Dunford arrived in China, Beijing announced new sanctions against North Korea, including against North Korean food exports and other items. In China, Dunford also met with his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Fang Fenghui, and signed a joint staff dialogue to enable greater communication between the two militaries. This agreement is hoped to reduce chances of miscommunication between the two forces on the Korean peninsula or in the South China Sea.
In Japan, Dunford restated the United States’ commitment to defend Japan against the North Korean missile threat, saying “an attack on one is an attack on both of us.” Dunford also met with his Japanese counterpart Katsutoshi Kawano, who agreed to work with the U.S. to bolster Japan’s missile defense system.
U.S. Forces in South Korea Moving from Yongsan to Pyeongtaek
As elements of United States Forces Korea (USFK) continue their long anticipated move from Yongsan Garrison to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, South Korea’s national and metropolitan governments in Seoul disagree on how to handle the returned land. While both governments intend to turn Yongsan Garrison into a park, there are disagreements regarding the future of operational control of specific buildings. USFK’s relocation has been postponed several times in 2008, 2012, and 2016 due to delays in construction and cost-sharing. South Korea is paying 7.7 billion USD, a little over half of the relocation project’s costs. Despite concerns regarding cost-sharing and local pollution, the move to Camp Humphreys is well under way.
Camp Humphreys will be about the size of a small town when the construction is complete and will include housing, medical centers, schools, and shops. Itsnew facilities are expected to exceed 3,600 acres and support a population of over 40,000 including Korean and U.S. military, dependents, contractors, and support staff. One benefit of the relocation is improving logistics and coordination between military units as both U.S. and Korean forces will be located closer to the airbase in Osan and the naval base in Busan. Related to the relocation is the planned turnover of Camp Coiner, the northern part of Yongsan Garrison, to the U.S. Embassy.
Although the relocation plan will reduce the combined size of U.S. military bases in South Korea from 242 million square meters to about 77 million square meters, it does not necessarily represent a weaker bilateral alliance. Both South Korea and the United States recently reaffirmed their commitment to “building a stronger partnership based on mutual trust and cooperation.” With the move to Camp Humphreys drawing to a close, the next objective on the Korean-U.S. agenda is the transfer of wartime operational control to South Korea, which may take time as there is no set deadline.
This Week in History: The Axe Murder Incident
On August 18, 1976, a United Nations Command (UNC) group came to the Joint Security Area in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea to trim a poplar tree that was blocking the view of UNC observers. The group consisted of both South Korean and American soldiers and South Korea civilian workers headed by U.S. Army officers, Capt. Arthur Bonifas and Lt. Mark Barret. They were encountered by North Korean soldiers who demanded they stop, claiming the tree has been planted by Kim Il Sung. After refusing, the UNC group was attacked and both Barrett and Bonifas were killed. The North Korean government and media attempted to portray the incident as a provocation by the Americans. The U.S. responded with Operation Paul Bunyan. On August 21, a team of U.S. Army engineers went back to the tree with chainsaws. They were escorted by Joint Security Area soldiers and both South Korean and American military providing ground and aerial support. The North Korean soldiers who were 100 meters away didn’t respond and the U.S. Army engineers finished cutting down the tree and left with the U.S. and South Korean military. North Korea delivered a statement of regret by its leader Kim Il Sung and both U.S and North Korea agreed to have a demarcation line drawn between North Korea and South Korea, having their soldiers stationed in separate areas and deescalating the conflict. One member of the South Korean military that participated in Operation Paul Bunyan was Moon Jae-in who is now the current president of South Korea.