Editor's Note

In this month's NK Update, Minah Kang, Ph.D. Candidate at John Hopkins University, provides an overview of South Korea-China Foreign Minister’s Meeting, North Korea’s hard line against the Yoon administration’s “audacious initiative”, and ROK-U.S.-Japan military cooperation against North Korea.

South Korea-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting


On August 9, two foreign ministers of South Korea and China held talks, marking the 30th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties. They discussed issues on the Korean Peninsula, regional, and global affairs including North Korea’s denuclearization. Both sides agreed to take each other’s legitimate concerns on THAAD seriously to make sure it does not become a stumbling block to South Korea-China’s bilateral relations. However, they clashed over the use of the THAAD system and its implication against North Korean nuclear issue. The Chinese government noted that the US’s deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea undermines China’s strategic security interest. They seemed concerned about the credibility of South Korea’s negotiation power over THAAD in that this technology belongs to US Forces Korea. In line with this, the Chinese government demanded South Korean government should uphold the previous Moon administration’s policy of “Three Nos (no additional deployment of the US-made THAAD anti-missile system in Korea; no participation in a US-led missile defense network; and no formation of a trilateral military alliance with Washington and Tokyo). On the other hand, the South Korean government argued that THAAD is a self-defense missile defense system against potential North Korean attack not the surveillance measure nor offensive weapon against China. Furthermore, they emphasized that in terms of security sovereignty THAAD cannot be the subject of negotiation. Meanwhile, South Korea’s Foreign Minister asked the Chinese side to play a constructive role and presented denuclearization roadmap for North Korea.


Administration’s North Korea denuclearization roadmap


In an address on Korea’s 77th Liberation Day (August, 15), President Yun proclaimed the “audacious initiative” on North Korea’s denuclearization. He said that the South Korean government will implement a comprehensive and phased support including food program, power generation, medical infrastructure, international investment, and financial support initiative only if North Korea expresses an intent for a genuine and substantive process for denuclearization. During the following press conference on Yun’s first 100 days in office, President Yun clarified that the South Korean government would start providing economic aid as long as North Korea declared to embark on the process of denuclearization and came to the negotiating table, regardless of whether the denuclearization is completed. He also implied the possibility of inter-Korean conversation on North Korea’s denuclearization roadmap. In addition, in the question of North Korea’s regime survival, he emphasized that South Korea cannot ensure North Korea’s regime survival and the change of the status quo by force is not desirable. Furthermore, when the US President Joseph Biden visited South Korea, he expressed the US’ support for the “audacious initiative” and two leaders underlined the significance of South Korea-US-Japan trilateral cooperation for responding to North Korea’s nuclear challenges. Sue Mi Terry, the director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center of the US, has called Yun’s diplomacy as a successful strong start. She highlighted that while President Yun administration focused on domestic policy, he has enhanced the US-South Korean alliance. On the other hand, Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies, argued that North Korea might reject Yun’s initiative. According to him, the attempts of trading the North Korea’s security concession and South Korea’s provision of economic benefits have historically failed, and Kim also has prioritized military development at the expense of economic prosperity as an essential prerequisite for maintaining regime survival.


On the other hand, Kim Yo Jong, vice department director of the Central Committee of the WPK, decried the South Korea’s audacious initiative as an “absurd dream.” She criticized that the audacious initiative is not a new one, but a replica of previous Lee Myung Bak administration’s “denuclearization, opening and 3,000”—if North Korea starts denuclearization and opening up, the South Korean government will raise its per capita income to the level of $3,000 within ten years by expanding investment in North Korea—and noted that the North Korean government would not barter economic cooperation for nukes. It is noticeable that she adopted the term an honor (kukche), to express their priority on nuclear weapons. If that is the case, the North Korean government can undermine the credibility of their will to negotiate for denuclearization of the past and future possibilities themselves.


Military Cooperation against North Korea


There were several military efforts to counter North Korean nuclear threats. Following the July 11 South Korea-US-Japan Trilateral Ministerial Meeting in Singapore, Souht Korea Navy joined in a missile warning and ballistic missile search and tracking exercise in Hawaii. Notably, unlike the other two countries, Japan’s Ministry of Defense officially released that this trilateral cooperation of defense exercise was designed to respond to North Korea’s challenges. On the other hand, from August 16 to August 17, two delegations from South Korea and US held the 21st meeting of the Korea-US Integrated Defense dialogue in Seoul. During the meeting, both sides reaffirmed the solidarity of the bilateral alliance cooperation with a common goal of complete denuclearization in the Korean Peninsula. From August 22, Korea and the US military begin joint exercise (UFS) to enhance combined defense readiness. Furthermore, Defense Ministry embarked on map exercise with related ministries to counter North Korean nuclear and WMD threats on Ulchi Freedom Shield Exercise. Minister Lee, noting that Korean Peninsula is now under a more severe security situation than ever due to various missile launches and preparations for the 7th nuclear test, stressed the importance of maintaining the firm South Korea-US combined defense posture for deterring North Korea's nuclear and WMD and working together to ensure the US’ promises of extended deterrence.


Although North Korea analyzed that the US exploited the South Korea-US joint exercise to pursue geopolitical interests and form a “new front” against China, they did not show an immediate and direct response against a series of military measures. Considering the recent aggressive tone of North Korea against the Yun administration, it is surprising that North Korea did not react with nuclear threat. Nevertheless, North Korea is likely to develop or revise the concept of nuclear weapons as an unnegotiable subject and accordingly further North Korean nuclear provocations could be highly escalated.   



Minah Kang is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. Her research interests include International Influences on Domestic Politics, State-Society Relations, Political Exclusion, Identity and Otherness, Global History of Cold War and East Asia, and Korean War. She has obtained her B.A. Political Science and International Relations & Women’s studies and M.A. in Political Science and International Relations at Ewha Womans University.



Typeset by Junghoo Park, Research Associate
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