President Trump to Withdraw from the Free Trade Agreement with South Korea
Earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump instructed his staff to begin preparations to withdraw from the free trade agreement (FTA) with South Korea. President Trump has repeatedly criticized the FTA because of a growing trade deficit and the FTA’s detrimental effect on the U.S. manufacturing industries. Signed in 2012 under the Obama administration, the KORUS FTA has also led to many tangible benefits including net gains in private sector employment, enhanced intellectual property protection, and growth in exports for goods and services, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Between 2012 and 2015, the value of the United States’ exports to South Korea rose from $35.5 billion to $44 billion.
South Korea also has FTAs with the EU, ASEAN, and several countries in Latin America. As a result of tariffs and international competition, withdrawing from the KORUS FTA could put American businesses and products at a disadvantage. However, the more alarming consequence of the U.S. withdrawal from the FTA is related to security on the Korean peninsula. Some in South Korea view concessions on the FTA and taking on increased costs for the U.S.-Korea alliance as the price for the U.S. cooperation on North Korea. Uncharacteristic of previous administrations, President Trump has similarly linked other foreign policy issues by proposing to pull out of NAFTA if Mexico does not pay for the border wall and stopping trade with any country that trades with North Korea.
Within the larger context of Northeast Asia, withdrawing from the FTA could certainly have ramifications beyond trade. Senior officials in the Trump administration including National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and National Economic Council director Gary Cohn opposed the withdrawal due to security concerns. Their worries seemed well-founded when North Korea launched missiles over Japan. Another launch is predicted to coincide with North Korea’s founding day. Similar to President Moon Jae-in and Prime Minister Abe agreeing to postpone the comfort womenissue, President Trump may choose to reprioritize security over trade if North Korea continues its belligerent behavior.
International Reactions to North Korea's Latest Nuclear Test
On Sunday September 3, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear weapon test. North Korea has claimed that the test used a hydrogen bomb rather than the simpler and less powerful fission bombs used in previous tests. According to seismic data collected from the test, the bomb was much more powerful than the previous tests. The U.S. Geological survey says the blast was the equivalent of a 6.3 magnitude earthquake, and the U.S. Intelligence Community claims the weapon tested had a yield of 140 kilotons of TNT equivalent, consistent with an advanced nuclear device several times more powerful than North Korea’s previous tests.
This nuclear test follows a series of threats and actions--North Korea’s successful testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), threats to shoot missiles near Guam, and a missile test that flew over Japan. The recent advancements in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and its provocative stance has continued to draw hardened responses from most of the international community.
The U.S. has responded by issuing stern warnings of possible military responses and increased sanctions on North Korea and those that do business with North Korea. The Trump Administration, for example, claimed that any threat to use a nuclear weapon against the U.S. or its allies would be met with a “massive military response.” President Trump, via Twitter, also threatened to cut off all U.S. trade with any country that also trades with North Korea, which would include China. Despite these tough words, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joe Dunford, offered some reassurance to North Korea, saying “We are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea,” but also that “we have many options to do so.”
In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in echoed the U.S. call for increasing pressure against North Korea via sanctions and other measures, while also stressing that the goal should be to bring North Korea back to negotiations. Seoul also responded to the nuclear test with a simulated strike on a North Korean nuclear site and continued to install the U.S. THAAD missile defense system.
China and Russia have been coordinating their response to North Korea’s latest provocations, emphasizing their goal of a denuclearized Korean peninsula. Both governments condemned the test. However, despite pressure from the United States, both countries will likely resist unilateral moves against North Korea, such as cutting off its oil supplies, and instead insist any actions be decided through the U.N. Security Council where both countries have veto power.
North Korea Launches Missile Over Japan
On Aug 29, 2017, North Korea launched a Hwasong-12 missile flew over Hokkaido, Japan into the Pacific Ocean. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abewarned North Korea to acknowledge that it has “no bright future” if continuing missile and nuclear tests. He also stated that Japan will change its policy and will further strengthen its collaboration with the U.S., South Korea, China, and Russia.
In addition to the missile launch, North Korea has conducted its most powerful nuclear test on Sept 3, 2017. In reaction to it, Abe said that Japan will continue to implement measures based on UN Resolution 2371, which has been approved by the Members of the United Nation Security Council on August 5. Currently, Security Council members are also considering new sanctions. The biggest sanction being considered would ban North Korea on imports of oil, refined petroleum products, and natural gas liquids, though this has not been supported by Russia.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono has asked Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi for adopting new sanctions resolution on North Korea. Wang said “Given the new developments on the Korean peninsula, China agrees that the UN Security Council should make a further response and take necessary measures.” Yet, Wang and Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying alsoaddressed that sanctions must be tied to dialogue and negotiation, since sanctions will not ease peninsula crisis.
The series of ballistic missile launch and nuclear tests give Japan a reason to advance its missile defense system, including using a land-based Aegis missile defense scheme. Japan's Defense Ministry therefore has requested 1.6 billion dollars for new missile defense systems. It is likely that Japan will also calls for an early warning satellite system.
Liberty Korea Party's Boycott of the National Assembly
On Saturday, Sept 2, 2017, South Korea’s largest opposition, the conservative Liberty Korea Party (LKP) declared a boycott of the National Assembly’s regular session. The boycott included all plenary sessions, confirmation hearings, and a committee on revising the Constitution. The LKP are protesting a court’s arrest warrant against broadcast company MBC president Kim Jang-gyeom, who was also appointed by the former President Park Geun-hye for unfair labor practices, viewing it as Moon Jae-in’s liberal administration’s attempt to control public broadcasters. Kim Jang-gyeom was accused by MBC employees of interfering in political coverage of the previous Park administration and punishing employees who didn’t obey his orders. The court issued an arrest warrant after Kim Jang-gyeom refused to answer several summons by labor authorities, considering them politically motivated. The labor union of MBC employees has also accused Kim Jang-gyeom of being favorably biased towards the Park administration and violating the freedom of the press. The union is now on strike, demanding his resignation.
South Korea’s National Assembly’s regular session started on Friday, September 1 and was the first session since President Moon Jae-in’s inauguration. The session was expected to be full of heated debates as the ruling liberal Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) was going to push for both economic and political reforms, especially welfare reform. The LKP was expected to oppose the reforms and push the Moon administration to abandon its North Korea policy of both imposing sanctions and pushing for dialogue.
The boycott has both attracted criticism and also put the National Assembly into a gridlock. The National Assembly failed to set up a vote earlier in the week for Moon’s pick, Kim Yi-su to be the Constitutional Court Chief. All political parties earlier had agreed to set up the vote on Monday, Sept 4 after having disputes over his previous political views. However, after the boycott started, the LKP opposed the vote, warning of consequences if the DKP pushes for the vote. Kim Yi-Su’s appointment requires a majority vote of the 299 National Assembly members. However, the DPK only holds 102 members, requiring the need of bipartisan support.
The LKP members also refused to sign a resolution condemning North Korea’s recent nuclear test. The DPK has urged the LKP to return to the session and help address the security issues of the Korean peninsula. They pointed out that MBC president, Kim Jang-gyeom is already cooperating with the labor authorities. The DKP has earlier criticized the boycott, pointing out that previous conservative administrations have also tried to control MBC.
In response to the criticism, the Liberty Korea Party agreed to cooperate on committees related to foreign affairs and national security. The LKP also agreed to temporarily stop the boycott during President Moon’s visit to Russia to meet with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during Sept 6-7. However the LKP will continue to boycott unless the Moon administration drops its attempt to control public broadcasters. On Friday, Sept 8, 2017, the LKP intensified its demands and doubled down its claim of the South Korean government attempting to control the media when Chosun Ilboreported that the DPK made an internal document detailing steps to remove top officials of MBC and KBS. The DPK denied the allegations, saying that the document was never submitted to the party leadership and never implemented.
This Week in History: The Partition of Korea
On Sept 8, 1945, United States troops arrived in the southern half of Korea to begin post-war occupation, one month after the Soviet Union occupied the northern half of Korea. The occupation was due to an agreement among the the Allies consisting of the U.S., Soviet Union, Great Britain, and China that Korea should be an independent country after World War II. At the Potsdam Conference in July and August 1945, the agreement was that the Soviet Union and U.S. will temporarily occupy Korea to liberate from Japan’s control and Korea will eventually decide its own political future. The American troops occupied the southern part of Korea after Japan surrendered. However, the situation worsened as the Soviet Union refused to consider reunification of Korea and established a communist regime under Kim Il-Sung. The U.S. faced a civil war between nationalists and communists in southern Korea, and also established a government headed by Syngman Rhee. In 1948, the Soviet Union refused the U.S. offer to hold national elections and refused to recognize the South Korean government. After both Soviet Union and U.S. withdrew their troops in 1948-1949, the Korean War started in 1950. After the Korean War, Korea remains divided today.