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The Peninsula

The Foreign Policy Outlook of South Korean Progressives: Part III

Published April 19, 2022
Category: South Korea

In the previous article, S. Nathan Park examined how South Korea’s fractious political history birthed the country’s liberals and their foreign policy outlook. He observed that many in DC’s foreign policy circles view liberal administrations as anti-American and submissive to North Korea because the center-left political movement was initially mobilized in opposition to the anti-communist, pro-American military dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan. But the democracy movement was neither homogenous nor static. This article and Part 4 examine what foreign policy looked like when liberals were in power. You can find part 1 here.

Part III: South Korean Liberals’ Foreign Policy in Action (Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun Administrations)

The philosophy undergirding South Korean liberals’ foreign policy emphasizes autonomy and self-determination, informed by their view of Korean history during the Japanese colonial rule and military dictatorship. This philosophy comes through in a foreign policy instinct that is engagement-oriented toward North Korea, skeptical of the Cold War era logic of the ROK-U.S. relationship, and critical of Japan’s attitude towards colonial legacy. In practice, however, this instinct is moderated through electoral politics, personal character of the liberal leaders, the bureaucracy that executes diplomacy, as well as other practical restraints in operation at the time. The net result is a pragmatic foreign policy slate that is, in broad strokes, largely similar to the conservatives’: both liberals and conservatives treat U.S.-ROK alliance as a bedrock, pursue a flexible approach with North Korea that avoids a war, and take a pragmatic attitude toward Japan and China.

Nevertheless, subtle differences exist between the foreign policy of South Korean liberals and the foreign policy of South Korean conservatives. And subtle differences, eventually, add up to a big difference: a ship may turn only by a single degree and arrive at an entirely different destination. Through their foreign policy, the three liberal presidents of South Korea—Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun, and Moon Jae-in—steered the country to a place from where a conservative president would have taken it. This part will review the key foreign policy moments of the three presidents, and how the liberal foreign policy instincts interacted with the real world conditions.

Kim Dae-jung: North Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia

Kim Dae-jung, South Korea’s first center-left president, was an internationally renowned democracy activist who won a Nobel Peace Prize during his presidency. Leveraging this considerable reputational capital with both the domestic and international audience, Kim implemented bold new diplomatic initiatives. Although the best known one is the Sunshine Policy for North Korea, Kim’s foreign policy also renewed friendship with Japan, and began a value-based middle power diplomacy in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

North Korea: the Sunshine Policy

As Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy is a well-trodden ground, it would be sufficient to highlight some of its under-appreciated aspects. Named after the Aesop’s Fable in which the sun beats the north wind in the competition to take off a passing traveler’s cloak, the policy sought an engagement-oriented policy with North Korea. To be sure, conservative presidents often pursued an engagement policy with North Korea as well. Roh Tae-woo, for example, issued the July 7 Declaration in 1988 that called for inter-Korean exchange and free trade between the two Koreas—a suggestion that would be considered radical today. Yet the Sunshine Policy is distinctive for its nuanced approach that resulted in a significant level of inter-Korean exchange.

It is often forgotten that military readiness was the first principle of the Sunshine Policy. In his inauguration speech, Kim Dae-jung outlined three principles of his North Korea policy: (1) zero tolerance of North Korea’s military provocation; (2) no attempt to harm or absorb North Korea, and; (3) pursuit of reconciliation and cooperation where possible. The Kim Dae-jung administration implemented the first principle in a serious manner, even as it pursued talks and exchanges with North Korea. In June 1998, a South Korean naval patrol ship stopped the infiltration of a North Korean spy submarine off the eastern coast of Korea. In December 1998, South Korea’s army detected a North Korean semi-submersible vessel off the southern coast of Korea. The South Korean navy gave chase and destroyed the vessel in the high seas. In June 1999, responding to North Korean navy’s provocation on the western coast of Korea, the South Korean navy retaliated with full force, sinking one North Korean vessel and severely damaging three, in a skirmish that came to be known as the First Battle of Yeonpyeong.

Another under-appreciated aspect of the Sunshine Policy was the depth and breadth of the inter-Korean exchanges, whose extent would be unimaginable today. Through the engagement programs created through the Sunshine Policy, including Mt. Geumgang tourism, Kaesong Industrial Complex and regular governmental and cultural exchanges, nearly two million South Koreans visited North Korea for about a decade spanning the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations. The two Koreas held 21 regular ministerial-level meetings, as well as 21 regular meetings of separated families. The Kaesong Industrial Complex hosted 125 South Korean businesses, employing nearly 54,000 North Korean workers who were directly exposed to South Korea’s business culture. South Korea would hold conferences and cultural events in North Korea, and a significant number of North Korean delegates also visited South Korea.

Despite the deteriorating relationship between North Korea and the United States because of North Korea’s nuclear program, the exchanges continued through the Roh Moo-hyun administration, which sought to soften the George W. Bush administration’s hardline stance against North Korea, as discussed further below.

Japan: Revitalized Relations

Kim Dae-jung also sought reconciliation with Japan, rescuing the relationship that was at a nadir because of maritime disputes. When the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) came into effect in 1994, it prompted a dispute between South Korea and Japan regarding the new boundaries of each country’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The dispute provoked historical sensitivities as Japan’s EEZ claim included the Dokdo islets, two ocean rocks controlled by South Korea but claimed by Japan based on a residual territorial claim from Imperial Japan’s colonization of Korea. Tensions rose toward the summer of 1997, when Japan detained several Korean fishing boats that crossed into the waters newly claimed as Japan’s territory.

Matters came to a head on January 23, 1998, when Tokyo announced it would let the 1965 agreement concerning fisheries lapse. (The agreement automatically renewed each year unless one of the parties declared termination of the agreement.) Emotions ran high in Korea, as Japan’s EEZ claim was seen as a renewed attempt at territorial expansion. The timing of the Fisheries Agreement termination also provoked public anger, as Korea was then undergoing the painful and chaotic economic restructuring following the Asian Financial Crisis.

Upon taking office in February 1998, Kim Dae-jung moved quickly to defuse this tension. On September 25, 1998, Seoul and Tokyo entered into a new Fisheries Agreement, which set aside issues related to the Dokdo islets. This was followed by a highly successful visit of Kim Dae-jung to Japan, culminating in a joint statement with Japanese Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo. Kim thanked Japan for saving his life from Park Chung-hee’s assassination attempt in Tokyo, and called for a future-oriented relationship that transcended the 20th century history between the two countries. The Kim-Obuchi Declaration of 1998, in which the two countries jointly pledged friendship, multilateral economic cooperation and Japan’s support for the Sunshine Policy, is widely considered the high-water mark of ROK-Japan relations. The increased cultural exchange between the two countries became one of the springboards for international Korean pop culture, as Japan served as one of the first international destinations for Korean television dramas and pop stars.

Southeast Asia: Values-Based Middle Power Diplomacy

As a lifelong democracy activist, Kim Dae-jung took Asia’s solidarity for democracy seriously. In 1994, prior to taking office, Kim debated Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew on the merits of democracy in Asia on the pages of Foreign Affairs magazine. Against Lee’s claim that Asian culture is ill-suited for Western-style democracy, Kim argued that Asian culture in fact contains its own seeds of democratic self-rule. As the president, Kim Dae-jung gave shape to this argument in the form of values-based diplomacy, leveraging his considerable reputation to promote democracy in Southeast Asia.

In 1998, South Korea became the only Asian country to sponsor the United Nations resolution calling for improved human rights in Myanmar. This was the first time for South Korea to sponsor a resolution regarding human rights since it joined the United Nations Previously, Seoul was reticent to call for human rights because of its own checkered past. With the famed democracy activist Kim Dae-jung at the helm, South Korea could take a step forward as a voice for human rights and democracy in Asia. Kim continued to focus on Myanmar throughout his presidency, for example by holding an unscheduled summit meeting with Burmese leader Than Shwe during the 1999 ASEAN Summit in order to persuade him toward democratization.

Kim Dae-jung also played a significant role in the East Timor Crisis. In September 1999, the Indonesia-affiliated paramilitary group that opposed East Timor’s independence began an indiscriminate massacre of civilians, killing some 1,400 civilians and destroying 80% of East Timor’s infrastructure. In the APEC summit held in the same month, Kim Dae-jung led the effort to ensure that East Timor was on the top of APEC’s agenda, crafting a joint statement by the United States, Japan, and South Korea urging Indonesia to take action for a peaceful transition in East Timor. Later, South Korea also sent a peacekeeping force to East Timor, marking a notable moment in Korea’s middle power diplomacy for democracy promotion.

Roh Moo-hyun: United States and North Korea in a Changing World

Despite also being a liberal, Roh Moo-hyun in many ways was different from his predecessor Kim Dae-jung. Unlike Kim who was fundamentally a machine politician, Roh was in the minority faction even within his own party, winning power instead by appealing directly to the public through his charisma and firebrand speeches. Although both Kim and Roh were major figures in South Korea’s democracy movement, Kim was an old hand in international politics while Roh had never left the country before he became the president. Accordingly, Roh’s foreign policy was more strongly animated by the ideological stance of South Korean liberals. Seeking greater autonomy in world affairs, Roh envisioned Korea as the “balancer” of Northeast Asia and sought to recalibrate South Korea’s alliance with the United States. Yet Roh’s foreign policy was also marked by key moments of pragmatic moderation, eventually steering its most important ally toward cooperation on North Korea.

U.S.-ROK Alliance through the War on Terror

In terms of foreign policy, Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency from 2003 to 2007 was a time of turbulence. Roh was an embodiment of South Korea’s greater confidence in the world affairs, emerging out of the Asian Financial Crisis with a roaring economy and successfully hosting the joint FIFA World Cup in 2002 with Japan. In the context of U.S.-Korea relations, this greater confidence ran into the peak of U.S. unilateral foreign policy during the War on Terror and the Iraq War, leading to a rocky adjustment of the alliance.

Among South Korea’s three liberal presidents, Roh Moo-hyun’s foreign policy vision was the most clearly ideological one, articulating the standard historical understanding of South Korean liberals. In one of his most famous speeches where he announced his presidential candidacy, Roh characterized Korean history dating back to the Joseon Dynasty as 600 years of injustice, during which “we could never change the rulers.” Roh urged voters to “achieve our own history, standing against power and winning the power” – a clarion call for democratic autonomy. The same call extended to international relations as well; in another famous speech, Roh directly criticized South Korea’s generals, suggesting that they “should be embarrassed” for relying on the United States for national defense. Even in ordinary times, such rhetoric would have caused raised eyebrows in Washington, DC. In the times of George W. Bush administration’s War on Terror, it provoked outright hostility, with some going so far to call Roh and his diplomatic team “the Taliban.”

In the early stages of the Roh Bush administrations, each interaction between the two quickly became a source of tension, which in turn became a fodder for South Korea’s domestic politics. Three flash points are notable: transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON), relocation of the U.S. military base in Yongsan, and the development of OPLAN 5029, a military operation plan of the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command that prepared for a sudden collapse of North Korea. In each instance, the Roh administration sought greater autonomy for South Korea by seeking sole wartime OPCON, the relocation of the Yongsan military base in the heart of Seoul that has been off-limits to Koreans for over a century, and assurances that North Korea would be under South Korea’s administration in case of a collapse.

The Bush administration responded to each with varying degrees of irritation. In case of the OPLAN 5029 negotiations, Roh’s then-National Security Advisor Lee Jong-seok claimed that Washington leaked confidential information to a conservative Korean journalist, who used the information to criticize the Roh administration’s unwillingness to sign onto OPLAN 5029. Roh also faced significant resistance from his own diplomatic corps and military, which pushed him to moderate his stance regarding the OPCON transfer and the relocation of the Yongsan base.

On the other hand, the Roh administration also made key concessions to the United States. Chief among them was to dispatch Korean military to the Iraq War in 2003 and 2004, despite significant domestic opposition to joining a globally unpopular war. Also, contrary to his leftist reputation, Roh set up a trade strategy of entering into a series of free trade agreements, culminating in the Korea-U.S. (KORUS) free trade agreement in April 2007. Collectively, these efforts gradually built trust between Roh and George W. Bush, to a point that Michael Green, a member of the National Security Council under the Bush administration, recalled that Roh Moo-hyun ended up becoming one of Bush’s favorite foreign leaders. As discussed further below, the unlikely rapport that Roh developed with Bush gradually steered the United States toward negotiating denuclearization with North Korea through the Six Party Talks.

North Korea and Nuclear Negotiations

Following the Sunshine Policy era of the Kim Dae-jung administration, the tenor of inter-Korean relationship changed significantly during the Roh Moo-hyun administration. George W. Bush’s War on Terror raised the possibility of an armed conflict between the United States and North Korea as well. North Korea’s nuclear testing in 2006 was a major turning point, presenting an entirely new level of challenge to the inter-Korean relations. Facing these challenges, Roh Moo-hyun sought to avert a war while nudging the United States toward a dialogue, eventually resulting in the Six Party Talks and 9.19 Declaration of 2005.

While the Roh administration largely followed the tracks of the Sunshine Policy, Roh’s version of the Sunshine Policy had a subtle shift in focus, from pursuing unification to maintaining peaceful co-existence with North Korea. This shift was in part because of Roh’s personal conviction, and in another part because avoiding a war in the Korean Peninsula was a more imminent challenge. The progress that Bill Clinton administration had made with North Korea’s developing nuclear program was undone as Bush took office, as he included North Korea into the “Axis of Evil” in the 2002 State of the Union address and then launched a war against Iraq, based on Iraq’s alleged program involving weapons of mass destruction. An armed conflict with North Korea based on the same logic appeared to be a serious possibility at the time.

Even as tensions were rising in the U.S.-ROK alliance, Roh consistently sounded off his opposition to a military option with respect to North Korea. In his first summit meeting with Bush in May 2003, Roh and his staff strongly pushed to exclude the phrase “all options are on the table” from the joint statement. Subsequent deployment of Korean troops to Iraq acted as an informal exchange to dissuade Washington from an armed conflict with Pyongyang. These efforts resulted in the U.S. participation in the Six Party Talks in Beijing, in which the two Koreas joined along with China, Japan, and Russia to negotiate North Korea’s denuclearization. The Six Party Talks, which progressed in fits and starts from 2003 to 2007, eventually led to an agreement whereby North Korea froze its nuclear facility in Yongbyun in exchange for assistance in petroleum, and U.S. de-designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. Although the negotiation eventually failed as North Korea continued with nuclear testing after several hiatuses, South Korea’s delegation in the Six Party Talks played a crucial role as a facilitator, at times corralling the other four parties to pressure the United States – often the lone holdout – to come to an agreement. Even in a multilateral setting, Seoul could implement its own initiative by controlling the drive and pace of the negotiations.


We will finish the series with a reflection on the Moon Jae-in administration and broader trends across the three liberal administrations.

S. Nathan Park is an attorney based in Washington, DC practicing international litigation. Mr. Park is a non-resident fellow of the Sejong Institute and frequent contributor for media outlets such as CNN, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, etc., regarding politics and economy of East Asia. The views expressed here are his own.


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