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The Peninsula

The Korean Peninsula in 2013 in Review

Published December 31, 2013

By Troy Stangarone

In a sense, the events of 2013 on the Korean peninsula began in December of 2012. In the days leading up to South Korea’s presidential election, North Korea successfully put its first satellite in orbit, defying UN prohibitions on long-range missile tests. Less than a week later, South Korea would elect Park Geun-hye as its first female president.

As we look back at the events that helped to shape 2013, we are also looking back at the predictions The Peninsula made in our annual “10 Things to Watch for on the Korean Peninsula in 2013” blog post. Looking back at the 10 issues we highlighted early in 2013 all 10 have had resonance on the Korean peninsula this past year. Of the ten issues, our commentary was largely on point on 6 of the issues, while the other 4 events intervened in leading to either different outcomes than expected or preventing the anticipated policies from being implemented.

Here’s a brief look back at the 10 issues and what happened:

  1. A New Approach to Foreign Policy: Despite coming from the same party as outgoing president Lee Myung-bak, we expected Park Geun-hye to look to put her own stamp on foreign policy. This is one issue where we have mixed results. While the terminology of “Global Korea” is gone as expected, it might be too soon to tell how South Korea has adjusted its middle power diplomacy and broader foreign policy. Much of President Park’s foreign policy in her first year has focused on dealing with North Korea by necessity. However, South Korea did join a new grouping of middle powers in September.
  2. South Korea’s Engagement with North Korea: President Park came to office hoping to engage North Korea under the banner of “trustpolitik.” The tensions with North Korea and the closure of Kaesong have largely precluded any attempts to engage with Pyongyang, though South Korea did attempt to restart the process of family reunions and resumed some humanitarian aide. North Korea agreed than canceled the reunions. This is still the administration’s policy, but it requires North Korea to be willing to engage which has been lacking to this point.
  3. North Korean Nuclear Test: Spot on in this regards – February 12, 2013.
  4. Reaching out to China: After a rocky relationship with China under Lee Myung-bak, Park Geun-hye was expected to reach out to China early on in her first year in office. After a successful summit in June with China’s new president, Xi Jinping, relations seem to be on the upswing. The one fly in the ointment in 2013 might be China’s decision to declare a new Air Defense Identification Zone that overlaps with South Korea’s own zone.
  5. South Korea’s Economy to Bottom Out in 2013, but Growth Outlook Uncertain: After facing a year in 2012 when expectations for economic growth were continuously downgraded, President Park faced a slowing economy as she came into office. In April, the administration responded with a fiscal stimulus package and GDP is expected to have grown at 2.8 percent in 2013. Growth is expected to near 4 percent of GDP in 2014.
  6. A New Approach to Trade Policy: The Park administration moved the trade policy functions from the former Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to a new Ministry of Trade, Industry and Commerce as expected and put out a new trade policy roadmap. Changes in the new approach include an increased emphasis on helping small and medium sized businesses to export and a greater focus on regional trade agreements. This led to Korea’s expression of interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership in late November, sooner than we had predicted.
  7. New Arms Purchases: South Korea was expected to place an order for a next generation fighter jet in the first half of 2013, but the purchase will now be delayed until 2014 after the earlier selection of Boeing’s upgraded F-15 Silent Eagle was criticized for its stealth capabilities. However, Seoul did move forward on a contract to upgrade the computers, sensors, and weapons on its F-16s.
  8. Negotiations for a new U.S.-ROK 123 Agreement: Seoul and Washington decided to extend the current agreement for two more years to buy time for the two sides to work out a mutually acceptable agreement.
  9. A Continuation of Historical Disputes: Tensions over historical issues remained high between South Korea and Japan in 2013 with Park Geun-hye commenting in November that there was no point in a summit with Japan and Shinzo Abe making a controversial visit to the Yasukuni shrine
  10.  No Repeat Of Gangnam Style: For any K-Pop song to hope to duplicate the success of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” was never really in the cards. Psy’s follow up, “Gentleman,” has only seen about a third of the views of “Gangnam Style” on Youtube, but did rise to #5 in the United States making him still the undisputed King of K-Pop in the United States.

Beyond the issues we expected to see addressed in 2013, some other key events in 2013 include:

  1. The Execution of Jang Sang Thaek: North Korea is developing a reputation for driving the news in December. In 2011, Kim Jong-il suddenly passed away raising questions about what comes next for the regime. In 2012, North Korea conducted its previously mentioned satellite launch. In an apparent rivalry over resources, Jang Sang Thaek was very publicly purged and executed by North Korea this December. The rivalry between Jang and Kim Jong-un was one The Peninsula previously identified as a key to watch in the transition shortly after Kim Jong-il’s death.
  2. The Suspension of the Kaesong Industrial Complex: As tensions increased between North and South Korea earlier this year Pyongyang withdrew its workers, essentially shutting the complex for five months before it reopened in September.
  3. South Korea’s First Indigenous Satellite Launch: On January 30, South Korea became one of 13 nations to develop its own rocket and put a satellite into orbit.
  4. Air Defense Identification Zones: Tensions were raised in Northeast Asia when China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea that overlaps with similar zones by South Korea and Japan, as well as territory disputed by China with each of its neighbors. South Korea responded to China’s declaration by expanding its own ADIZ.
  5. Mr. Rodman Goes to Pyongyang: In perhaps the biggest surprise of the year former Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls starting forward Dennis Rodman shocked the world by taking a trip to North Korea and striking up a friendship with Kim Jong-un. Rodman traveled twice more to North Korea in 2013, even shortly after the execution of Jong Sang Thaek.

Troy Stangarone is Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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