Issue 30: February 6-21, 2018


Susan Thornton: Next Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs

Patrick Niceforo

On Feb 15, 2018, Susan Thornton testified on the Hill for her confirmation hearing as the next Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Thornton is a career member of the United States Foreign Service, having joined the State Department in 1991. Her areas of expertise include the countries of the former Soviet Union and East Asia.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson nominated Thornton to be the next Assistant Secretary of East Asian and Pacific Affairs in late December. Thornton has been serving as acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs since March 2017 and previously served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs.

In her confirmation testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Thornton stated that she would favor soft-line, pro-business policies toward China. Thornton also confirmed that the Trump administration is not considering a “bloody nose” policy of limited military strikes on North Korea. In addition to pursuing diplomacy with North Korea, Thornton mentioned that State is working with the White House to nominate the next U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, which has been vacant for a year.

The position of Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs has been vacant since Daniel Russel left the position last March. Secretary Tillerson initially tapped Thornton for the role last June to the disagreement of several high-ranking individuals in the Trump administration, including former Chief Strategist Steve Bannon.

North Korea's Peace Offensive During the Winter Olympics

Andrew Jung

On Feb 13, 2018, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un provided a plan for inter-Korean relations according to an article reported by North Korea’s state media, Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). He was quoted as saying,“It is important to keep accumulating fine results, by taking the atmosphere of reconciliation and dialogue a step further.” Kim Jong-un also thanked South Korea’s government for accommodating North Korea’s delegation led by his sister, Kim Yo-jong to South Korea’s Winter Olympics. Although the KCNA did not provide details, further inter-Korean exchanges are likely to occur. 

During the North Korea’s delegation’s visit, Kim Yo-jung also invited South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in on her brother’s behalf to visit North Korea for a summit. President Moon did not readily accept the invitation, saying that both North Korea and South Korea should “work on creating a political atmosphere that would make such a meeting feasible.” Moon also urged North Korea to resume dialogue with the U.S.

The U.S. government has stated that it is cautiously open to talks with North Korea but that denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is non-negotiable. This was after U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited the Winter Olympics and said“the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we'll talk.” Pence’s comments came after President Moon assuredhim that North Korea will have to take steps toward denuclearization to start talks. 

Analysts offer possible reasons for Kim Jong-un’s peace offensive. North Korean defector and former North Korea’s ruling Workers Party official Ri Jong-hobelieves that Kim Jong-un is making overtures to South Korea due to fear of a preventative military strike by the U.S. He said that Kim Jong-un wants to buy time to build up North Korea’s nuclear arsenal due to feeling the strains of the sanctions.

Kim Sung-han, South Korea’s former vice foreign minister and Korea University professor argued that North Korea is trying to create a division between South Korea and the former U.S. envoy to the Six Party Talks. Joseph DeTraniconcurred that North Korea’s move was to create discord in the U.S.- South Korea alliance and relieve pressure of the sanctions. He believes that an inter-Korean summit will only be successful if denuclearization is discussed.

The Local Impact of the Winter Olympics

Leon Whyte

PyeongChang, Gangwon Province, a mountainous county located approximately 110 miles from Seoul, was selected for the site of the 2018 Winter Olympics on Jul 6, 2011. While the Olympics are a global event, hosting the games always has an outsized effect on the locals hosting it.

For approximately 100 residents of Sukam, the games have resulted in theirentire town being moved. Shortly after PyeongChang was awarded, the games provincial officials decided that the mountains near their villages would be used for the Alpine Skiing event. The small town of Sukam was therefore bulldozed and relocated, to the mixed reactions of villagers.

Another group of people have been particularly negatively impacted are local ski shop owners. Jong Cheon-lim, who heads the Phoenix Ski/Snowboard Rental Shop Association claims that business is down 80% this year and that 50 shops have shut down for the season. 

While the Olympic games has brought dismay to some of its rural residents, it has also brought along development, including $13 billion of new investment in Gangwon Province. Gangwon is hoping that the increased investments and attention will boost its tourism market. Towards this effort, Seoul is planning toinvest $3.1 billion in Gangwon’s tourism economy by 2032, which it hopes will create 264, 390 jobs.

For some residents of PyeongChang, a meaningful way to participate in the Olympics has been volunteering as a “White Friend.” The White Friends are a group of South Korean volunteers who attend less popular Olympic events and cheer on foreign athletes, who may not otherwise receive much attention. The volunteers go through a 3.5-hour training and follow rules against scalping tickets, excessive drunkenness or threatening behavior. The name is meant to represent the whiteness of the snow and of the white tiger Olympic mascot.

Foreign Born Koreans and Overseas Korean Adoptees in the Pyeongchang Olympics

Michael Buckalew

While North Korea’s role in the the Pyeongchang Olympics has dominated the headlines, another relatively quieter series of events has taken place during the games. These are the stories of Koreans born overseas and those who were adopted abroad among both Olympic athletes and others.

On Team USA, one of the most prominently featured athletes is Chloe Kim, a 17-year old snowboarder. She and her father were featured in an ad titled, “Best of U.S.,” during this years’ Super Bowl. She was also in a promotional video for the Pyeongchang Olympics released by the U.S. embassy in Seoul in late 2017. Her efforts met with success as she won a gold medal in the ladies’ halfpipe competition.

Women’s Ice Hockey has also has been focused on as well and not just for the joint North-South Korean team. Prior to Pyeongchang being selected as the 2018 host city, South Korea did not have a women’s hockey program. In order to build up one quickly the South Korean Ice Hockey Association sought out “North American-raised, Korean heritage athletes.” The team includes twoCanadian dual citizens, Park Eun-jeong and Danelle Im. Finally, the story of Hannah and Marissa Brandt also gained attention. Hannah plays for the U.S. team, while her sister Melissa a Korean adoptee from Minnesota played for the recently eliminated South Korean women’s ice hockey team.

Another athlete with a prominently featured story is Jackie Kling, competing as a freestyle skater for South Korea. Mee-Hyun Lee, Jackie’s Korean name is hoping to find her birth parents by appearing on South Korean television at the Olympics, but isn’t actively searching for them now. Her story calls back toTony Dawson’s, who won a Bronze medal at the 2006 Torino games. As a result of international TV coverage, he was able to meet and reunite with his birth father.

Ak Salling of GOAL (Global Oversees Adoption Link) stated that, “…having adoptees in the Olympics is definitely a good thing and can give some positive attention to overseas adoptees.” Pyeongchang Olympics have also inspired other adoptees to travel to South Korea. The International Korean Adoptee Service (InKAS) planned a trip for more than two dozen adoptees during the Olympics. Finally, Dr. Judy Eckerle is leading a delegation of 18 people to lobby the South Korean parliament to a change a controversial 2014 adoption law, which requires birth parents to sign a national family registry before placing a child up for adoption.

Moon and Abe's Third Summit

Jessie Chen

On Feb 9, 2018, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and held the third summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in to reaffirm cooperation with South Korea in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear threat. 

The Summit was held at Yongpyong Resort in Gangwon Province. During the third summit, President Moon and Prime Minister Abe discussed the comfort women agreement reached on Dec 28, 2015. Prime Minister Abe urged the President Moon to implement the agreement, while President Moon responded that the South Korean public have not accepted the deal reached by the previous administration. 

Prime Minister Abe also asked South Korea to remove the comfort woman statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. He also stated that South Korea should not delay the joint military exercise with the U.S. Yet, President Moon responded that a U.S.-Korea joint military exercise is an “internal affair” and not of Japan’s concern. 

The two sides at the summit reflected their different strategies toward North Korea and its nuclear program. President Moon pressed for inter-Korean dialogue, leveraging the international sports event to start talks about North Korea’s denuclearization. However, Prime Minister Abe deems that North Korea is buying more time to develop its own nuclear weapons by holding inter-Korean dialogue. He also had a phone talk with the U.S. President Donald Trump on Feb 14, 2018, affirming that Japan and the U.S. will maintain the pressure on North Korea. Though the two leaders displayed discord on some issues, they agreed to improve bilateral relations and cooperation.

This Week in History: Controversial Disqualification of South Korea's Kim Dong-sung in the 2002 Winter Olympics

On Feb 20, 2002, in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, UT, South Korea’s skater Kim Dong-sung was leading in a short-track race. United States Apolo Anton Ohno was second behind. Kim Dong-sung crossed the finish line first but the referee disqualified Kim for blocking Ohno in the last lap. Ohno had tried cut inward to take the lead but Kim Dong-sung moved in his way. Ohno raised his arms to signal interference. The referee announced that Kim Dong-sung is disqualified for “cross-tracking,” and Ohno won the gold medal. South Korea protested and appealed the decision but was turned down. South Korea’s delegation considered this biased judging and have threatened to boycott the closing ceremony. 


Political Economy of Reform in North Korea
Hosted by Partnerships for International Strategies in Asia & GW Institute for Korean Studies
12:00 PM- 2:30 PM, Thursday, February 22, 2018
Elliott School of International Affairs, Room 602
1957 E Street, NW
Washington, DC 20052

DC Asia Policy Happy Hour - Feb 2018
5:30 PM- 9:00 PM, Friday, February 23, 2018
Prequel DC
919 19th St NW
Washington, District of Columbia 20006

Life With a Nuclear North Korea
Hosted by New York Times
6:30 PM- 8:00 PM, Monday, February 26, 2018
555 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, DC 20001

Nuclear Risks in Northeast Asia
10:30 AM- 2:00 PM, Tuesday, February 27, 2018
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
1779 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20036

Nuclear North Korea: Is War the Way Ahead?
Hosted by The McCain Institute for International Leadership
6:00 PM- 7:30 PM, Wednesday, February 28, 2018
United States Navy Memorial
701 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, DC 20004


Asia Pacific Senior Program Officer
Open Government Partnership