New President of the Republic of Korea: Change in the Korean Peninsula?

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ByeongKyu (Colin) Jun is a Korean student studying BA International Relations as a Year 3 student at King’s College London. For his dissertation, he researched what led the ROK to choose strategic hedging with the US and China over other policy options. He is interested in East Asian politics, international development, and the economics-security nexus.

On March 10th, the new president of Republic of Korea was elected – the conservative candidate, Yoon Suk-Yeol, won one of the tightest presidential elections in Korean history [1]. Since this conservative win indicates a major transition from Moon’s progressive government, as Gabrlela Bernal expresses, one may expect Korean foreign policy to change significantly from the previous five years [2]. Since the conservative party, People’s Power Party, has shown strong opposition towards Moon administration’s North Korean policy, Park Chan-kyong expects the new government to take a tough North Korea stance on its foreign policy [3]. It is worthwhile to explore how the changes in the leadership of the Republic of Korea will impact the long-lasting conflict on the Korean peninsula.  

Track Record of Moon Jae-In Government

Since the beginning of his presidential term, President Moon Jae-In had pushed for a softer North Korean policy which emphasized stimulating dialogue between the two Koreas to reduce military tensions on the peninsula and negotiating with North Korea to move towards denuclearization on peaceful terms [4]. Since the first inter-Korean summit in 2018, two more inter-Korean summits have followed, which all resulted in Moon agreeing with Kim on increasing inter-Korean exchanges, reducing tensions in demilitarized zones, and potentially dismantling some nuclear facilities in North Korea [5]. Proclaiming itself the mediator of the denuclearization talks in the Korean peninsula, the Moon administration further supported the first USA-DPRK summit in 2018 [6]. These successes in 2018 seemed enough to increase the possibility of transitioning to a peaceful co-existence of two Koreas in the Korean peninsula, as Moon had promised throughout his election campaign.

Yet, since the failure of the 2019 Hanoi Summit between the US and DPRK to produce an agreement, mutual dialogue in the inter-Korean relationship and the US-DPRK relationship has frozen [7]. Expressing its dissatisfaction with the limited role that the ROK could play in US-DPRK dialogues, North Korea disconnected the communication hotline between ROK and DPRK and further destroyed the inter-Korean Liaison office in 2020 [8]. While the hotline got restored in October 2021, communication between both sides did not appear to return to the cordiality seen previously, during the time of the Trump-Kim summit. More recently, since early 2022, the Kim Jong Un regime has conducted ten missile tests and has threatened to withdraw from the nuclear development moratorium [9]. Accordingly, despite some early success, Moon’s softer North Korean policy did not appear to produce lasting results and concessions from the DPRK, no less on the critical issue of denuclearization.

Yoon Suk Yeol’s North Korean Policy

The formulation of Yoon’s North Korea policy is still in the making. Nonetheless, his campaign rhetoric offers some hints. Throughout the election campaign, Yoon proclaimed he would take a strong stance on North Korea, especially on the condition that there would be no summits until progress emerges on denuclearization in lower-level talks, while achieving “peace through strength.” [10] Moreover, differing from the Moon administration which hedged between China and the US to gain support on its peace talks, Yoon has promised strategic clarity, suggesting its policies would be more assertively pro-US [11]. Based on this mandate, Yoon has further suggested during his campaign the possibility of the ROK adopting the tactical nuclear weapons to build deterrence against North Korea, introducing a second THAAD system, and strengthening annual Korea-US joint military trainings to advance its defense capabilities [12].

The members of the Presidential Transition Committee have also suggested changes in the stance of the new ROK government. With the primary mission of the Transition Committee being development of governance plans for the new government for next five years, the transition committee often reflects the viewpoints of the new president elect and demonstrates how the Korean government would operate for the next five years. [13] A majority of the committee members leading the foreign policy agenda are officials from the previous Lee Myung Bak government, which took one of the strictest stances against North Korea [14]. The Lee administration has a record of cancelling inter-Korean exchanges conducted under progressive governments and pushing for greater sanctions against the DPRK [15]. These strict measures against the DPRK, as noted by Hong-hwan Park, resulted in the Lee administration having arguably the coldest relationship with the DPRK, when compared to previous progressive administrations such as Kim Dae-Jung or Roh Moo-Hyun administrations [16]. Since the officials from Lee administration are dominating the Yoon’s transition committee, it will not be a surprise if the new administration decreases inter-Korean exchanges and increases diplomatic and economic pressure on DPRK, including stronger sanctions and strengthened military alliances with the US and other partners to denuclearize its territory. Furthermore, considering that Yoon has mentioned “preemptive strikes,” the new administration may be more favorable towards utilizing the military threat to pressure North Korea further. [17]

Contextualising Risk

As a more assertive and confrontational stance is expected from the new administration, some experts have anticipated there will be increasing tension in the Korean peninsula, which can increase the risk of the conflict between two Koreas [1]. Furthermore, Joon-ki Jung has argued that the strengthening of the Korea-US joint military trainings and the ROK’s general military capabilities can easily be taken by the DPRK as a justification to increase its military threat against the ROK (claiming it is for self-defense purposes against the ROK and the US). While the increasing tension indeed is a risk for Korea, a situation of mutual animosity needs to be read in context as nothing that is entirely new or unprecedented in inter-Korean relations [19].

Specifically, while an increase in the military threats may appear as the DPRK’s response to anti-North Korean policy of the new administration on the outside, the missile tests and the military actions taken by the DPRK are often driven more for the domestic political agenda. Kim’s regime has maintained its power through playing both the more assertive pro-military and more moderate pro-economy elites within North Korea, effectively keeping opposing factions in competition to retain Kim’s own supremacy in political affairs [20]. Hence, the increase in the military actions may simply reflect a temporary moment in time when Kim Jong Un is placing more support on its pro-military elites to earn their loyalty. Accordingly, one can observe that the military threats of North Korea has already begun since the early 2022 when the Moon administration was still in power [21]. As such, while one should acknowledge that the risk of the military conflict may increase due to the more assertive North Korean policy of the new government, it is premature to conclude that the DPRK’s policy is influenced only by the ROK’s posture, and that the DPRK’s belligerence must somehow signal a permanent shift in policy.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the new Yoon administration may be expected to increase and emphasize its deterrence capabilities against the DPRK. However, it should be emphasized that both such a shift on Yoon’s part and the DPRK’s increasingly bellicose posture in recent months need not be irrevocable, given the long pattern of wax and wane in inter-Korean relations. One should still watch the Yoon administration closely to see if it displays any signs of flexibility in its policies to make room for dialogue with North Korea when the Kim’s regime is more amicable, such as when Kim is placing more support towards the pro-economy elites who may be more willing to conduct the inter-Korean exchanges that can reduce the risk of the conflict through emphasis on joint economic and social interests.

Bibliography

[1] McCurry, Justin. 2022. “Conservative Candidate Squeaks to Victory in South Korean Election.” The Guardian. March 9, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/09/yoon-suk-yeol-elected-president-south-korea.

[2] Bernal, Gabrlela. 2022. “Yoon to Take Hard Line against ‘Main Enemy’ North Korea.” Nikkei Asia. March 14, 2022. https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/N-Korea-at-crossroads/Yoon-to-take-hard-line-against-main-enemy-North-Korea.

[3] Park, Chan-kyong. 2022. “South Korea President-Elect to Sternly Deal with North Korea, Reset China Ties.” South China Morning Post. March 10, 2022. https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3169937/south-koreas-president-elect-yoon-suk-yeol-vows-tougher-stance.

[4] Lee, Chung Min, and Kathryn Botto. 2018. “President Moon Jae-in and the Politics of Inter-Korean Détente.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 2018. https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/11/16/president-moon-jae-in-and-politics-of-inter-korean-d-tente-pub-77730.

[5] Stangarone, Troy. 2018. “A Successful Inter-Korean Summit, but Now the Hard Work Begins.” East Asia Forum. October 1, 2018. https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2018/10/01/a-successful-inter-korean-summit-but-now-the-hard-work-begins/.

[6] Kim, Rahn. 2018. “[ISSUE TODAY] ‘Moon, the Mediator’ Seeks Coordination before Kim-Trump Summit.” Korea Times. May 21, 2018. https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2018/05/103_249185.html.

[7] O’Carroll, Chad, and Oliver Hotham. 2020. “One Year since the Hanoi Summit, Where next for North Korea-U.S. Relations?” NK News. February 28, 2020. https://www.nknews.org/2020/02/one-year-since-the-hanoi-summit-where-next-for-north-korea-u-s-relations/.

[8] Davies, Glyn T. 2020. “Is the Sun Setting on North Korean Diplomatic Engagement?” One Earth Future. 2020. https://oneearthfuture.org/opinion-insights/inter-korean-liaison-office-destruction.

[9] Weiser, Martin. 2022. “Waiting for North Korea to Escalate.” Lowy Institute. March 22, 2022. https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/waiting-north-korea-escalate.

[10] Ji, Da-gyum. 2022. “Yoon Suk-Yeol Pursues ‘Peace through Strength’ on the Korean Peninsula.” The Korea Herald. February 27, 2022. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20220227000098.

[11] Lee, Michelle Ye Hee, and Min Joo Kim. 2022. “Under New, Conservative President, South Korea Is Poised to Adopt a More Hawkish Foreign Policy.” Washington Post. March 10, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/10/south-korea-president-yoon-foreign-policy/.

[12] Choi, David. 2022. “Large-Scale Military Drills and THAAD Are Back on the Table in South Korea.” Stars and Stripes. March 15, 2022. https://www.stripes.com/theaters/asia_pacific/2022-03-15/south-korea-military-drills-thaad-missile-defense-yoon-suk-yeol-5349837.html.

[13] Cho, Hye-Jung. “인수위원회는 도대체 뭘 인수하냐고요? [What Is the Transition Committee Taking Over?].” Hankyore, December 28, 2012. https://www.hani.co.kr/arti/politics/assembly/567493.html.

[14] Kim, Hwan-Yong. 2022. “Hangug Yunseog-Yeol Daetonglyeongjig Insuwie Mihan Dongmaengpa Pojin 한국 윤석열 대통령직 인수위에 미한 동맹파 포진 [Spread of Pro-US-Korea Alliance Officials in Korea’s Yoon Suk-Yeol’s Presidential Transition Committee].” Voice of America. March 16, 2022. https://www.voakorea.com/a/6487469.html.

[15] “Seoul Hits Pyongyang with Sanctions, Vows UN Action.” 2010. France 24. May 24, 2010. https://www.france24.com/en/20100524-seoul-self-defence-pyongyang-torpedo-attack-un-sanctions.; Reuters. 2010. “Text – North Korea Cuts off Relations with South,” May 25, 2010, sec. World News. https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-korea-north-text-idUKTRE64O41N20100525.

[16] Park, Hong-hwan. 2022. “[Baghonghwan Kalleom] 5wol-i Dulyeoun Iyu/Pyeonghwayeongusojang [박홍환 칼럼] 5월이 두려운 이유/평화연구소장 [[Park Hong-Hwan Column] Why I Am Afraid of May/President of Peace Research Institute.]” Seoul Shinmun. March 17, 2022. https://www.seoul.co.kr/news/newsView.php?id=20220318031014.

[17] Kim, Jeongmin. 2022. “Yoon Suk-Yeol Backs ‘Preemptive Strike’ to Stop North Korean Hypersonic Attacks.” NK News. January 11, 2022. https://www.nknews.org/2022/01/yoon-suk-yeol-backs-preemptive-strike-to-stop-north-korean-hypersonic-attacks/.

[18] Bernal, Gabriela. 2022. “Yoon to Take Hard Line against ‘Main Enemy’ North Korea.” Nikkei Asia. March 14, 2022. https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/N-Korea-at-crossroads/Yoon-to-take-hard-line-against-main-enemy-North-Korea.

[19] Jung, Joon-ki. 2022. “Yunseog-Yeol Dangseondoen Nal, Gimjeong-Eun ‘Jeongchal-Wiseong Daegeo Baechi’… Nambuggwangye Heomlo Yego 윤석열 당선된 날, 김정은 ‘정찰위성 대거 배치’… 남북관계 험로 예고 [On the Day Yoon Seok-Yeol Was Elected, Kim Jong-Un ‘Deployed a Large Number of Reconnaissance Satellites’… Prediction of Difficult Road in Inter-Korean Relations].” Hankook Ilbo. March 10, 2022. https://m.hankookilbo.com/News/Read/A2022031012410000617.

[20] Ishiyama, John, and Taekbin Kim. 2020. “Authoritarian Survival Strategies and Elite Churn: The Case of North Korea.” International Area Studies Review 23 (2): 160–76. https://doi.org/10.1177/2233865920920740.

[21] Lendon, Brad, and Yoonjung Seo. 2022. “Analysis: Kim Jong Un Wants the World to Know He Still Matters.” CNN. January 31, 2022. https://edition.cnn.com/2022/01/30/asia/north-korea-missile-tests-analysis-intl-hnk-ml/index.html.

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