The Koreas

What Is South Korea’s Vision for the New Northeast Asian Order?

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The Koreas

What Is South Korea’s Vision for the New Northeast Asian Order?

Kim Yong-jae, from the China-Japan-Korea Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat, reflects on the upcoming flurry of summits.

What Is South Korea’s Vision for the New Northeast Asian Order?

Photo provided by Kim Yong-jae, courtesy of TCS

Summit diplomacy is at work in East Asia. Major players including the United States, China, Japan, and South Korea are preparing for series of summits to address issues of denuclearization and bringing peace and stability to the region.

The role of South Korea has been significant in bringing these players together, according to Kim Yong-jae, a public relations officer at the China-Japan-Korea Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat. A specialist in Chinese politics from Seoul National University and a former assistant professor of Military and Strategic Studies at the Korean Air Force Academy, Kim provides The Diplomat with food for thought concerning the role of South Korea in achieving the third inter-Korean dialogue, how it relates to other upcoming summits, and the prospect of Korean reunification.

A deal on the inter-Korean dialogue has been reached, and it will be held on April 27. How do you assess the diplomatic role of the Moon administration in this matter?

The Moon administration has shown outstanding performance throughout the course of recent events.

As you are aware, North and South Korea have agreed to hold the inter-Korean dialogue on April 27 at the House of Peace in Panmunjom. Also, [former] Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi met with South Korea’s National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong to share the results of the China-North Korea summit that took place only recently.

Considering the complex web of interest that exists among the players, the Moon administration seems to have pulled off a rather significant role of a midfielder who understands the game and knows how to cooperate with other stakeholders as one team to achieve the goal of bringing peace and stability in Northeast Asia.

One example of this is how the dates have been set up for the upcoming summits. The inter-Korean dialogue is to be held on April 27, which will be followed by the China-Japan-Korea Trilateral Summit to be held around May 8-9, and the United States-North Korea summit is expected to take place by the end of May.

The fact that the trilateral summit is placed right between the inter-Korean dialogue and the U.S.-North Korea summit is especially important, because the Moon administration can use it as the opportunity to share the results of the inter-Korean dialogue with its East Asian counterparts, and ask for their proper support for the U.S.-North Korea summit.

Also, the trilateral summit is symbolically important, because it is going to be held in Tokyo, Japan. It is going to be the first time since former President Lee Myung-bak for a South Korean president to step foot in Japan.

The trilateral summit will not only fix this, but it will also serve as an opportunity for Japan to overcome what some experts call the “Japan Passing” and take a more active role in today’s dealings with North Korea. Since there are internal talks of holding a Korea-Japan bilateral summit in the near future, the trilateral summit may also serve as a prequel for a successful bilateral Korea-Japan summit.

What each stakeholder is most afraid of is the possibility of being sidelined during the course of an important transition, all of which will culminate with the U.S.-North Korea summit. Sharing information and establishing common understanding is of utmost importance, and the series of summits that will soon take place will help achieve this. In this regard, Kim Jong-un’s meeting with Xi Jinping has also contributed to this process. In the end, all of this will help minimize any possible risks and help reconfirm and verify the agenda for the U.S.-North Korea summit.

Considering that the Moon administration came into office without proper presidential transition after the Choi-Park scandal, this is a major feat that it was able to achieve, and I believe that the core of its success comes from the National Security Advisor’s Office at the Blue House, which took the role of a control tower for executing foreign policy.

The National Security Advisor’s Office has taken a top-down approach to effectively carry out the country’s diplomatic agenda. The Moon administration can use this as momentum to connect with the initiatives assigned to other government agencies, such as the Northeast Asia Plus Community of Responsibility or the Northeast Asia Platform for Peace and Cooperation, to further institutionalize its diplomatic efforts and secure sustainability of its policies.

So far, we’ve talked about the strategy of the Moon administration. Can you tell us about the specific tactics that the Moon administration used to bring the stakeholders together?

The Moon administration was better prepared for this than its predecessors, because President Moon has experienced this before. We had two inter-Korean summits, back in 2000 and in 2007, and the Moon administration has reasonable expertise concerning those meetings.

Back in 2007 when President Moon was chief secretary for the Roh administration, he was responsible for chairing the preparatory commission for the 2007 inter-Korean summit between President Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il. So, President Moon himself has deep understanding and experience based on the lessons learned, which most likely have contributed to the success of persuading the United States and North Korea to come to the table this time.

Another tactic that the Moon administration utilized is that it overcame the passiveness of past foreign policy and took a more robust and active diplomatic engagement.

For example, former President Lee Myung-bak’s so-called “747 policy” or former President Park Geun-hye’s “Unification Bonanza Discourse” became the subject of criticism for the lack of government action, used only for declaratory purposes to call upon North Korea or the United States without taking substantive action.

However, the Moon administration took the path of directly engaging with the United States and North Korea, as well as sending special envoys with the purpose of not only sending out a clear message to its counterparts, but also engaging in real conversations with them to talk about a real way forward.

South Korea’s consultative power, or the ability to engage overseas, is greatly bolstered by the issue of denuclearization, which is basically the most significant premise behind most of South Korea’s diplomatic efforts.

What is interesting, however, is that the Moon administration seems to have taken a bigger picture than just sticking to denuclearization. South Korea seems to have come up with a better deck of cards to offer to its stakeholders based on a new picture of Northeast Asian security and economic order.

What is this new picture then? Alongside with denuclearization, the Moon administration seems to be looking for a new paradigm of arms control in the Korean peninsula, as well as dealing with President Trump’s trade concerns by overcoming the traditional economic relationship of importing arms from the United States in exchange for the United States tolerating a trade deficit.

All of this helped persuade both North Korea and the United States to come out to the table, because South Korea is doing things that coincide with their national interest. North Korea likes to see South Korea talk about disarmament, and the United States does not need to insist on selling arms to South Korea, because President Trump does not politically owe much to the defense industry. He owes more to the Rust Belt now, so he’s got reasons to renegotiate the terms of trade with South Korea and, fortunately, South Korea seems to know all this.

There are little pieces of a puzzle that helps us take a sneak peek of what I’ve just described about South Korea.

First, when Chung Eui-yong… went to the United States to meet with President Trump following his meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, the Blue House’s Secretary of Peace and Arms Control went to the United States beforehand to engage in working-level discussions with the White House and the U.S. State Department, alluding to the fact that arms control is on the agenda list for South Korea.

Second, following President Trump’s series of tweets that talked about withdrawing U.S. troops from South Korea, Kirstjen Nielsen, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, came with her delegation to participate in the opening ceremony for the PyeongChang Winter Paralympic Games. Her visit spurred many questions in South Korea as to the country’s relevance to U.S. homeland security.

Then, Rear Admiral Pat Dequattro, deputy commander of Coast Guard Pacific Area (PACAREA), reportedly visited U.S. Navy headquarters in Busan to talk about possible areas of cooperation, which is an unprecedented development worth keeping track of.

This leads to the possibility of sending the U.S. Coast Guard to South Korea to gradually replace the U.S. Navy, which will mean a lot to China and North Korea. The U.S. Coast Guard has less offensive capabilities than the U.S. Navy, such as nuclear submarines and carrier strike groups. Relieving these offensive capabilities will minimize the security threat against China and North Korea. Don’t get me wrong though. The U.S. Coast Guard is still one of the world’s top 10 naval powers. What I am trying to get at is that the United States also may be interested in a gradual arms control.

One more thing to add is that the process leading down to bringing the United States and North Korea to the table was not entirely pretty. There were recent indications of nuclear activity at the Yongbyon facility, and the U.S. Army’s 3rd Division, famous for taking down Baghdad, was recently stationed in South Korea. All of this may have obstructed the negotiations, but the Moon administration was able to stick to the momentum based on a cold and precise understanding of the current situation, and was able to effectively make a deal with North Korea and the United States.

How do you see the future of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and how it may affect South Korea’s defense policy?

Even if the series of summits result in total success, the withdrawal of U.S. troops in South Korea is very unlikely. Instead, however, there may be subtle change in the level of threat they pose against the North, or come up with other alternatives. As mentioned earlier, it is possible that the U.S. Coast Guard might take over certain responsibilities in the peninsula from the U.S. Navy, which may lead to a virtuous cycle of disarmament in the region. The Moon administration is going along this context to make change in South Korea’s defense policy.

First, the Moon administration is in the process of carrying out its initiative to renovate South Korea’s national defense structure through the so-called Defense Reform 2.0 program. The core of this initiative is to cut its troops down from 620,000 to 500,000 in exchange for increased deterrence and defense capabilities. A large standing army is usually maintained to withstand attacks in an in-bellum situation. What the Moon administration is trying to do is strengthening the deterrence capabilities to prevent any kind of attack in the first place, an ad-bellum prevention of war, thereby lessening the need to maintain a large standing army. Defense Reform 2.0 is expected to serve as a safety mechanism that could maintain security in the Korean peninsula in case of decrease/withdrawal of U.S. troops in the region.

Second, in relation to the issue of expanding South Korea’s deterrence capability, there is the “Defense Reform 2020” program. First coming into effect during the former Roh administration, this is a program that seeks to overcome South Korea’s reliance on U.S. troops by strengthening South Korea’s own defense capability. Traditionally, South Korea’s core defense capability was a standing army, while air and naval power relied heavily on U.S. forces.

Now, based on the 2020 plan, it is slowly but gradually approaching the level of operational capability that is less reliant on the United States. South Korea recently introduced 40 F-35s along with other fifth-generation aircraft. They also brought in air refueling tankers and are currently negotiating to bring in maritime patrol aircraft as well. South Korea has built three Aegis-equipped destroyers and has plans to build three more, all of which contributes to South Korea’s autonomous defense capability.

Once these programs are complete, South Korea will be able to better muster its deterrence capabilities even if U.S. forces in Korea undergo major changes.

The upcoming summits hold significant importance for Korea’s future and reunification. How do you think South Korea should prepare for Korean reunification?

When it comes to the question of reunification, experts tend to view the traditional Northeast Asian economic and security order as invariable, which is a problem because that order is now turning into something new.

The rise of a new world order means problems for any government, because it has to convince its people that it needs to overcome its past policies to cope with new trends. What makes this very difficult is that South Korea has long been suffering from a large generational gap when it comes to the understanding of a reunified Korea. The older generation, for example, is ideologically sensitive and therefore strongly rejects the idea of establishing a Korean federation, which would recognize and maintain the North Korean regime. On the other hand, the younger generation feels more acceptable towards the idea of a federated Korea, but disagrees on having South Korea pay for the likely excessive cost of reunification. The South Korean government should come up with a good compromise that is acceptable by both generations, and be able to push this through various ratification procedures of the National Assembly in order to achieve reunification.

Economic resolution is also important. Although reunification is something that South Koreans naturally want, many of us also understand that this will not necessarily lead to an economic “bonanza.” Reunification will bring in waves of significant changes in South Korea’s industry and trade, which may both help or devastate the country’s economy. That is why we need substantial plans and initiatives that could maximize the economic benefit that may come with reunification.

There are already government agencies such as the Presidential Committee on Northern Economic Cooperation that are talking about this. They currently have plans for gas and railway projects in Siberia that connect well with the scenario of reunification. However, the government should take a broader picture that considers macroscopic factors such as the ever-changing industrial network, the fourth industrial revolution, and the change in labor power in South Korea due to aging population.

Many experts, including past presidential candidates in South Korea, argue that once reunification is achieved, a unified Korea can reallocate its massive defense budget to bolster its economy, which is a rather oversimplified statement.

We have to seriously consider past cases of Germany and Yemen on what to do with our massive defense assets once the two Koreas are reunified. Unified Germany, for example, pretty much disbanded the entire military in East Germany, and West Germany had to pay an astronomical amount for reunification.

On the other hand, Unified Yemen has left the armed forces in North and South Yemen effectively standing (although physically combined), because it was preoccupied with setting up a single government. This later triggered a civil war which continues to this day.

A unified Korea will have 1.5 million standing troops. A careful and detailed analysis is needed to design a good solution that could effectively use military disarmament for Korea’s economic stability. In that regard, the preparatory commission for the upcoming inter-Korean summit will be a good platform of discussion.

Any closing remarks?

Whenever we talk about diplomacy, we always talk about Metternich and Bismarck. The reason why they were able to lead the changing world order is, I believe, not only because of their excellent ability to conduct negotiations, but also because of their understanding and vision of a new world order.

One important factor that makes up a vision is that it goes beyond ideological limitations to blend with the complex web of interest among states at that point of time. I believe that what we are seeing in Northeast Asia today is a transitioning process that will lead to the manifestation of a new vision. What I’ve tried to do in this interview is to interpret that vision from the Moon administration’s point of view. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.