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The Peninsula

10 Issues to Watch for on the Korean Peninsula in 2017

Published January 5, 2017
Author: Juni Kim

By Mark Tokola, Phil Eskeland, Troy Stangarone, Jenna Gibson, Kyle Ferrier, and Juni Kim

The Korean peninsula was dominated by unexpected events in 2016. North Korea began the year with a nuclear test that merely foreshadowed a year of significant advancements in its nuclear program rather than its traditional pattern of using tests to provoke a cycle of crisis and negotiations. In response, the Park Geun-hye administration closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex in what would become the first of a series of significant moves to tighten sanctions on North Korea bilaterally by a series of nations and through the United Nations.

On the political front, 2016 saw the surprise election of Donald Trump as president of the United States on a platform that may remake parts of U.S.-Korea relations while redefining the role of the United States in East Asia. Closer to home in Seoul, South Korea was rocked by a political crisis that led to the impeachment of Park Geun-hye.

As 2017 begins the consequences of those events and others from 2016 will begin to play out on the Korean peninsula and Kim Jong-un has again begun the year with a shock announcing that North Korea is close to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). With that in mind, here are 10 issues to follow that will have an impact on the Korean peninsula in the year to come:

Political Dynamics and the Presidential Election in South Korea

Perhaps no issue will have more impact on the Korean peninsula this year and in the years to come than the resolution of the current political crisis in South Korea. Depending on when and how the Constitutional Court rules on the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, South Korea could have a new president as early as this spring or enter into a period of extended political uncertainty with President Park remaining in power until February 25 of 2018.

These political dynamics have implications for South Korea and the peninsula beyond whether Park Geun-hye leaves office early or serves the remainder of her term. The political uncertainty around the impeachment means that needed economic reforms will likely be delayed and that policies enacted by the interim administration or late in the Park administration could be subject to quick reversal after the question of impeachment is resolved. The current environment could also lead to a move towards constitutional reform, an issue that had already been gaining steam prior to the move towards impeachment.

If President Park’s impeachment is upheld a snap 60 day campaign could change the dynamics of the election and favor a candidate who might not ordinarily have performed as well under an ordinary campaign. It may also aid a move towards more populist positions, as is becoming an increasing trend around the world, but in the case of South Korea may come from left rather than the right as we have seen in Europe and the United States.

The election also holds the potential to see a significant shift in policy related to North Korea and Japan, among other issues to watch in 2017.

The Trump Administration’s Foreign and Security Policy in East Asia

For the first time since the end of the Korean War, there is significant uncertainty on how U.S. foreign and security policy will develop in East Asia. After decades of bipartisan understanding of both the benefits of the region to the United States and the basic policies that should be put in place to promote U.S. interests, the Trump administration will come into office having campaigned for significant change in U.S. policy and with an air of uncertainty in the region on the shape of U.S. policy to come.

In the campaign, President-elect Trump seemed to place a greater emphasis on international economic issues and question the utility of U.S. alliances and whether countries such as South Korea were contributing enough financially to the deployment of U.S. troops. He also suggested a willingness to withdraw U.S. troops and allow South Korea and Japan to defend themselves with nuclear weapons.

Since the election, we have seen President-elect Trump reaffirm the United States commitment to defend South Korea, but also a willingness to change the nature of the U.S. relationship with Taiwan, potentially increasing tensions with China. For the Korean peninsula, the priorities the administration sets in the region, including whether China or North Korea will be a priority, as well as whether it chooses to purse those policies through negotiation or confrontation will have significant impact on events on the Korean peninsula, including how willing China is to cooperate in pressuring North Korea to denuclearize.

As the Trump administration sets out its new policies, we should expect there to be significant changes that could unsettle the region early in the administration. However, as events and structural challenges in the region necessitate, there will likely be a shift towards a more traditional U.S. foreign policy in the region.

Trump Administration Asia Economic Policy

During the campaign, President-elect Donald Trump castigated U.S. trade policy, including the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA).  While the KORUS FTA was cited as an example of a “disastrous” trade deal, candidate Trump did not threatened to withdraw or renegotiate the agreement, as he did with other FTAs.  His first 100 days agenda only reiterated his pledge to withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

While the KORUS agreement may be out of the limelight, there are indicators to watch for to see the future of U.S. trade policy.  First, his senior appointees for various posts will determine the extent of Trump’s economic nationalism.  He has nominated Wilbur Ross, a private equity billionaire who specializes in restructuring failed companies, particularly several in “Rust Belt” industries, as Secretary of Commerce, and noted “fair” trade attorney Robert Lightizer, to serve as the U.S. Trade Representative.  In addition, Trump has appointed two individuals to fill newly created positions within the White House – noted trade skeptic and economist, Peter Navarro, as the Director of the National Trade Council, and Jason Greenblatt, who currently is Executive Vice President of the Trump Organization, as the Special Representative for International Negotiations.  It is unclear how all these four individuals, along with free trade advocate Rex Tillerson, who was nominated by Trump to serve as his Secretary of State, will interact to shape a unified trade policy, and how much real power and authority each one of these individuals will possess.

Second, in early February, the annual trade statistics will be released by the U.S. government.  The Year to Date (YTD) trade deficit between the U.S. and the ROK in goods is slightly outpacing last year’s level ($24.07 billion for 2016 vs. $23.997 billion for 2015).  If this trend continues, there could be a renewed attention on KORUS.

Third, even if there is not a direct confrontation of KORUS in the near-term, the Trump plan to focus most of their attention on fixing agreements with Mexico and enforcing trade laws before negotiating any new bilateral deals could have ancillary spillover effects on Korea.  China is Korea’s top trading partner and Mexico is Korea’s ninth largest export market.  Mexico is also becoming a major destination for Korean foreign direct investment.  Thus, while KORUS maybe out of the cross-hairs, actions by the Trump Administration affecting other trading partners could have negative effects for the Korean economy.

North Korean Behavior in Response to a New Political Environment

With a new administration in the United States and the prospects for a new administration in South Korea this year, there is an expectation that North Korea may test the alliance and Kim Jong-un has already suggested that he will conduct an ICBM test.  Observers have tried for years to explain the timing of North Korean nuclear tests, missile tests, and other provocative acts on the basis of North Korean political anniversaries, foreign elections, and other external events such as international summits or Olympic Games. The historic correlations are weak.  It may simply be that North Koreans test their weaponry when it is time to do so on an engineering schedule.  When they are ready to test, they test.  They might wait a matter of days or weeks if tests would interfere with a major political event such as a bilateral meeting, as we would do, but that would nudge the schedule, not drive it.

The tempo of testing has picked up since Kim Jong-un came to power.  Nuclear and missile test are happening much more often than they did during the time of Kim Jong-il.  This might be occurring because Kim Jong-un is still trying to cement his power and has tied his personal prestige to weapons testing.  It may be because North Korea wants to get as far as it can, as fast as it can, before the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and China take stronger steps to try to put an end to its quest for a nuclear arsenal.  It might also reflect Kim Jong-un’s personal impatience.

Will North Korea be a Trump Administration Priority?

U.S. Administrations have limited ability to set foreign policy priorities.  It is a useful exercise to try to set priorities on the grounds that unless you know where you want to go, you are unlikely to get there.  But, foreign policy is unavoidably reactive because decisions by foreign leaders and non-state actors, natural disasters, accidents, and miscalculations require responses.  British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was quoted as answering a journalist’s question of what Prime Ministers fear most by saying, “Events, dear boy, events.”

Discounting events, North Korea should be a high foreign policy priority for the Trump Administration.  North Korea has threatened military action against the United States, South Korea and Japan and is getting closer to having a nuclear weapon that could strike the U.S. west coast.  That in itself should not be considered a watershed moment, North Korea can already threaten South Korea, Japan, and hundreds of thousands of Americans, military and civilian, living within the range of North Korean military strikes.  North Korea’s belligerency, possible instability, and grotesque human rights abuses should be of great concern to countries in the region, the U.S., and the international community.  A concerted, coordinated policy towards North Korea is necessary.

Are Sanctions Working?

The sanctions enacted this year on North Korea constitute the toughest and most comprehensive framework to date. New information in 2017 will help to gauge whether these measures are working as intended and how they can be strengthened, with China’s enforcement of new sanctions playing a key role. The effectiveness of improvements made to UN sanctions in resolution 2321 and U.S. secondary sanctions targeting financial institutions facilitating Kim Jong-un’s pursuit of hard currency greatly depends on Beijing’s willingness to cooperate with Washington. However, President-elect Donald Trump’s initial approach towards China suggests heightened tensions in the relationship over other issues may pose significant challenges for cooperation on sanctions in 2017.

Nevertheless, the continued use of sanctions as a tool on North Korea may be in question. Several candidates in South Korea’s presidential elections next year favor economic engagement with North Korea. South Korea’s return to engagement would greatly undermine the cohesion of UN sanctions, likely precipitating Russia and China—the most reluctant supporters of sanctions and North Korea’s most influential economic partners—to abandon their support. Even if these candidates are unsuccessful in their presidential bids, should the new sanctions have a limited impact in the first half of 2017 transitioning leaders in the U.S. and South Korea may consider other policy alternatives.

Special Measures Agreement/Burden Sharing 

Ever since 1991, the Republic of Korea (ROK) has provided some financial support to offset the cost of stationing U.S. troops on the peninsula.  During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump questioned on several occasions the alleged low reimbursement for stationing U.S. troops abroad.

Later this year, Korea and the United States will begin negotiations on renewing the Special Measures Agreement (SMA), which is set to expire in 2018, that lays out the terms of the burden sharing arrangement.  Last April, General Vincent Brooks testified before the U.S. Senate that Korea pays approximately 50 percent of the total non-personnel costs of the U.S. troop presence on the peninsula.  Under the current SMA, Korea’s annual payment (in won) increases by the rate of inflation.

Just as in all negotiations, one side offers its most parsimonious offer and the other side counters with its proposal to bolster its own self-interest.  Over time, the two sides come together to reach an agreement.  Marine Corps General James Mattis, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, earlier criticized President Barack Obama for “saying that our allies are freeloaders.”  Not only does the ROK already share half of the burden of the stationing costs of the U.S. military on the peninsula, but this staunch U.S. ally also has a military draft with 625,000 active duty military personnel confronting North Korea; spends 2.6 percent of its GDP on its own defense (highest among any major European or Asian ally of the U.S); and 80 percent of South Korea’s imports of military equipment over the past five years have come from the United States.  South Korea is leagues above European members of NATO in terms of alleviating the defense burden of the United States.

SMA negotiations will be tough with the Trump administration, as they have been at times in the past.  However, these talks will not undermine the alliance.  The U.S. national interest will continue to inform policymakers that no U.S. troops should be withdrawn from the ROK until the threat from North Korea is resolved.

Will RCEP Be Finalized in 2017?

The failure of TPP has turned attention to the remaining mega free trade agreement in Asia: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Negotiations were due to have finished by the end of 2015, but have been bogged down by disagreements over a range of issues. However, the breakdown of TPP may prove to be the necessary push to conclude negotiations in 2017. China, the largest member economy and key driver of the deal, has vowed to accelerate talks and is already looking ahead to lead the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP), the next progression in the regional architecture.

RCEP members and even non-signatories, such as the U.S., stand to benefit from an Asia with fewer barriers to trade. Still, the deal’s avoidance of non-tariff barriers, while making consensus easier among sixteen diverse economies including Korea, offers limited gains from liberalization. If RCEP is concluded it may provide the foundation for slower and less ambitious regional integration

With RCEP in place, an emboldened Beijing could seek to displace Washington from its leadership role in the region on economic issues. However, the longer RCEP talks continue to drag on, the greater the opportunity for the U.S. to bolster its standing in Asia through bilateral agreements preferred by President-elect Donald Trump.

Will the Korean Wave Continue?

Last year was nothing if not a roller coaster for Korean cultural exports. The bombshell soap opera “Descendants of the Sun” broke records at home and abroad, raking in billions in direct and indirect profits. However, the second half of the year was marred by reports of a Chinese ban on Korean entertainment content because of Korea’s decision to deploy THAAD.

While there have been some instances that could raise suspicion, other events have proceeded as planned, indicating that this is not a blanket ban. It’s far more likely that some local organizers, skittish about the Chinese government’s harsh language on THAAD, decided not to risk a controversy. With THAAD set to be deployed later this year, this will deserve further attention as the deployment takes place.

Yet, interest in everything Korea continues to grow, and shows no sign of stopping. Cosmetics giant Amore Pacific saw a 26.7% year-on-year jump in overseas sales in Q3. And Korea already broke tourism records as of mid-November, with more than 15 million people visiting the country by that point.

It’s worth remembering that the word “hallyu” itself was originally a derogatory term created in China in the 1990s to push back against the influx of Korean media content. People have been predicting the downfall of the Korean Wave since then, yet it is stronger than ever. Expect this to continue in 2017.

Relations Between South Korea and Japan

Relations between South Korea and Japan remain as complicated as ever and 2017 could see uncertainty in the relationship. Despite the implementation of the 2015 Seoul-Tokyo agreement regarding the compensation of comfort women earlier this year, controversy and protests in South Korea have continued to overshadow the deal. In light of President Park Geun-hye’s recent impeachment, leading members of the South Korean opposition parties have increased calls for the government to reconsider the agreement. Potential presidential candidates Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo have criticized the deal and may try to restructure the deal or scrap it entirely if elected.

Despite controversy over the comfort women agreement, South Korea and Japan have continued to strengthen their defense ties. Both countries participated in regular joint military exercises with the U.S. this year and started implementation of an intelligence sharing deal earlier this month. The deal allows for intelligence sharing between the two countries regarding North Korea’s nuclear and weapons programs. Controversy over historical issues between the two countries is unlikely to subside in the near future, but the shared North Korean threat provides avenues for greater security cooperation for South Korea and Japan. Needless to say, the next South Korean president will play an instrumental role in determining the future of the relationship.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America, Phil Eskeland is the Executive Director of Operations and Policy,  Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade, Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications, Kyle Ferrier is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research, and Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

Image designed by Jenna Gibson of the Korea Economic Institute of America with photos from the photostreams of Gage Skidmore, Stefan Krasowski, Herman Van Rompuy, Byoung Wook, and Korea.net on flickr Creative Commons.

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