My Top 5 List for 2104: 5 Biggest Foreign Policy Events in Korea


This is a follow-up to my previous post – a top 5 list of events for US power in Asia in 2014.

South Korea had a good year. President Park’s cozying up to Beijing is starting to pay off. China-North Korea relations are frosty, which is important progress. Seoul also got OPCON delayed indefinitely, which is great for Southern security, as well as its defense budget (but not so great for the US). And the UN report on North Korea human rights has gotten a lot of traction – way more than I thought – and looks increasingly likely to show-up China and Russia for what they really are out here – shameless, cold-blooded supporters of the worst regime on earth. The more that point is made in public and Moscow and Beijing suffer the embarrassment costs of that support, the better.

The full post comes after the jump; it was originally written for the Lowy Institute:


The end of the year is a nice time to reflect on big events and try to prioritize them. This is often seen as a fool’s errand. There are so many events, and weighing their causal significance, in real time particularly, seems impossible. Still, assigning causal weight is what we are supposed to do in social science; it is what makes us different from pundits who just assign causality to their favorite arguments. So even if our judgments are poor, we still have to try.

What that in mind, here are the top five foreign policy events for Korea (where I live and work) for 2014. The relevant benchmark is security – those events which impact the security of the two Koreas, specifically those which impact their competition and move the debate about North Korean collapse and/or unification. All in all, South Korea had a pretty good year, while North Korea struggled. Indeed, North Korea is now so isolated (points 1 and 5 below), that denuclearization is becoming ever more unlikely: to give up its best deterrence against a hostile region would be folly. Anyway, here’s that list:

1. Improving Xi-Park Relations, and the Mini-Freeze between Beijing and Pyongyang

There’s a lot nattering about the good relationship between South Korean President Park Geun-Hye and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Pro-American South Korean conservatives have accused her of being a sinophile and preferring Xi to Obama.

I must admit that I have never understood this criticism. I suppose very partisan Americans might see Park’s supposed ‘sinophilia’ as a threat to the alliance. But that is pretty myopic. The whole point of the alliance is to control, if not eventual dispose of, North Korea. And this is precisely what Park is trying to wrangle from Xi. China more than anyone now holds the key to North Korea. It pays its bills, allows massive sanctions-busting along the border, provides it political cover at the UN and elsewhere (point 5 below), and so on. North Korea has no other meaningful allies to carry its costs. So if Park can slowly pull Xi away from Pyongyang, that is a huge achievement. We should all be cheering for this and the distance it has already created between North Korea and China.

2. Kim Jong Un’s Disappearance

Ah, wasn’t the autumn fun? For six weeks you could indulge all your paranoid fantasies and conspiracy theories about North Korea, and by mid-October, Kim Jong-Un’s disappearance was so lengthy that saying nutball stuff like, he was overthrown in a coup and that his sister had taken over the country, was actually credible.

Too bad none of the fun was true. But we did learn some things few of us want to admit, the most important being that the regime can fly on autopilot for away. There may be a neo-patrimonial sun-king cult at the top, but there are also institutions below – however deformed, neofeudal, or mafiaosi. And they did a pretty good job holding the DPRK together during Kim Jong-Il’s sudden illness (fall 2008), after Kim Jong-Il’s sudden death (December 2011), and again this time. So don’t get too excited for regime collapse next time some high figure dies suddenly or is purged.

3. Decision to Permanently Delay OPCON Transfer

This probably the most under-reported of all my points in this list, given how dull and bureaucratic it is. I wrote on this last month for Lowy. OPCON is the ‘operational control’ of the South Korean military in wartime. OPCON is currently in the hands of a US four-star general, in order to insure unity of command during a war. (In peacetime, i.e., right now, OPCON belongs to the South Koreans naturally.)

Needless to say, this is controversial. Many South Koreans, especially on the left, see US OPCON as an infringement on South Korean sovereignty (it is) and a major provocation to North Korea (it isn’t). So under South Korea’s most recent liberal president last decade, an agreement was struck to return OPCON to the Seoul. But the Southern right strongly opposed this as (correctly) reducing the American sense of commitment to South Korean defense. After conservatives re-won the presidency, OPCON was repeatedly delayed until last month, the delay was effectively made permanent by pushing the issue to the 2020s. In other words, the US commitment here will indefinitely remain as it has been.

4. The Kono Statement Pseudo-Review

2014 was another bad year for rapprochement between Japan and Korea. The low point was probably Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to revisit Japan’s apology for the sexual enslavement of Korean women (the ‘comfort women’) during the Pacific War. This apology, known as the Kono Statement, was examined for politicization, and Abe indeed found what he wanted – that Seoul pressured Tokyo over the crafting of the statement. But then Abe decided not to alter the statement.

I must admit that I don’t understand this at all and said so for Lowy at the time. What is the point of running a ‘review’ – which everyone knew would be politicized and give Abe what he wanted – but then not changing the statement in response? Abe thus got the worst of both worlds: He convinced the South Koreans once again that the Japanese right is unrepentant about wartime atrocities, while simultaneously inflaming and the disappointing Japanese conservatives who want to dump the Kono Statement altogether. This outcome makes everything worse – Seoul and Tokyo are as far apart as ever, while Japanese conservatives’ revanchism has now spread into government. Yikes.

5. The UN Commission of Inquiry Report on North Korean Human Rights

Early this year, the UN told everybody what everybody already knew: that North Korean gulags are on par with the Nazi Holocaust. But this has turned out to be a pretty big deal, bigger I think than most of us thought when it was released. The COI report has acquired a credibility globally that no amount of reports from the US government or NGOs could, and now there is discussion of sending the North Korean leadership before the International Criminal Court. I think this report broke through, because many less developed states intrinsically distrust US human rights pronouncements as either self-serving, hypocritical (post-Abu Ghraib), or ‘human rights imperialism.’ But the UN is trusted in much of the global South, because it is far more open to their concerns. So a UN report on North Korea is turning out to have far more weight in moving global public opinion than anyone thought.

Happily, China may be forced into publicly voting to prevent a referral of North Korea to the ICC. That would be a huge victory, as it would starkly reveal to the world just how much China protects its hideous, orwellian client. And such embarrassing publicity is probably the best way to pull China from North Korea.

BONUS: ‘Events’ that weren’t:

6. The Curious Lack of Impact of the Sewol Tragedy

At the time, the sinking of the Sewol ferry got enormous play in the local and global media. Pundits across Korea talked of it re-setting politics for years and beginning the decline of the Park presidency. The opposition took up the banner of Sewol for the year’s elections – and lost three times on it. What happened to all the social anger of the time? It’s still not clear.

7. Japan’s Non-Remilitarization

If there were a list from within the Korean media or government, I have little doubt that it would include the re-militarization of Japan. This is perennial Korean concern, frequently wildly exaggerated, and under Abe, it has gained new life. But Japan actually woefully underspends on defense, a truth widely recognized outside the region.

Happy New Year, all.

2 thoughts on “My Top 5 List for 2104: 5 Biggest Foreign Policy Events in Korea

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