The Year of the Unexpected: A Look Back At the Korean Peninsula in 2016
Published December 28, 2016
By Troy Stangarone
In the Chinese zodiac, 2016 is the year of the Fire Monkey. Fire Monkeys are said to be ambitious and adventurous, as well as irritable. Despite Donald Trump’s not having been born in the year of the Monkey, looking back, his victory in the U.S. presidential election that year may yet seem fitting. However, rather than being a year reflective of the characteristics of the Fire Monkey, 2016 might be better known as the year of unexpected events around the world and on the Korean peninsula. Whether it was the British vote to leave the European Union in June or the impeachment of the South Korean President Park Geun-hye in December, 2016 will be remembered for a series of unexpected events and the questions they have raised about how they may shape the future.
As we take our annual look back at the events that helped to shape the Korean peninsula during the past year, it is also an opportunity to review the events we highlighted on The Peninsula in our annual 10 Issues to Watch For on The Korean Peninsula in 2016 blog. For a year that was dominated by such a large number of unexpected events, our annual look ahead to the events of the coming year holds up surpassingly well. However, while our look ahead was correct on the importance of many events in 2016, those same events also often played out in surprising ways that will have significance beyond what we expected earlier this year. One example of this is the U.S. presidential elections. While U.S. elections always hold significance for the Korean peninsula, few foresaw the election of Donald Trump and the implications his presidency could have for the peninsula early in 2016.
With that said, here’s a brief look back at the 10 issues we highlighted and what happened:
- No Significant Progress with North Korea – After North Korea began 2016 with a nuclear test, the international community moved towards placing greater pressure on Pyongyang. This included sanctions at the UN, which would later be strengthened, to cut off North Korea’s trade in minerals such as coal, and bilateral sanctions by the United States to cut North Korea off from the global financial system. As was expected at the time little progress was made with North Korea on resolving the nuclear issue, but the one surprising element was that rather than try to find a way to engage North Korea after a new round of sanctions, South Korea went all in on pressuring the North with the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and lobbying countries to cut their ties with Pyongyang. While we were right on the broader element of there being little progress with North Korea and how structural issues such as the U.S. elections and sanctions would inhibit progress, the strength of South Korea’s stance was one of the unexpected turns of 2016.
- If There Will Be Another Round of Family Reunions – If there was going to be progress in relations between North and South Korea it was going to require both countries to separate the nuclear issue from other issues in their relationship. Neither side was able to do so in 2016, which is regrettable for both the humanitarian burden that it places on the divided families and for the reality that family bonds will be one of the important ingredients for unification if it takes place at some point in the future. The longer that families remain divided the further apart the two Koreas are likely to drift.
- Could a China-North Korea Summit Still Happen? – This is one issue that was fairly straight forward. While there had been suggestions in late 2015 that Chinese President Xi Jinping might finally meet Kim Jong-un thanks to improving relations, the nuclear test in January ended what little chance there may have been for a China-North Korea summit.
- Korea-Japan Relations – When looking at Korea-Japan relations heading into 2016, clearly there had been prior progress. At the same time, it seemed unlikely that there would be the type of progress that the U.S. might have liked and the prospect for backsliding existed. While Japan did approve money for the comfort women fund, the agreement itself remains controversial in South Korea and may face pressure under the next administration. As for the comfort woman statue near the Japanese Embassy, it remains an issue for the local government of Seoul. While progress was made in relations, unsurprisingly, much work remains.
- How the U.S. Elections Could Impact Policy – Here we were right about how the political parties viewed the situation in Korea, but wrong about the overall impact of the elections. While we foresaw the critiques of the Obama administration’s policy and the push back on issues such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the degree to which then candidate Donald Trump would shift the debate with his repeated push on the question of South Korea’s contributions to U.S. troops on the peninsula, and suggestions that the U.S. might withdraw those troops and allow South Korea to develop its own nuclear weapons, and that a candidate with these views would win the presidency, were clearly unforeseen. The ultimate result of the election is potentially much more significant for the peninsula than anyone might have imagined at the beginning of the year.
- South Korean National Assembly Elections – Here we saw the fairly divided electorate give the opposition Minjoo Party a slim majority and a display of surprising strength by Ahn Cheol-soo’s new People’s Party. However, the impeachment of Park Geun-hye likely means that any signals the National Assembly elections may have had for the presidential election in 2017 no longer matter.
- Cooperation Between Korea and China in the G20 – At the G20 in China, South Korea worked with China as expected to help advance the agenda, but IMF quota reform and global safety nets played less of a role than expected during 2016.
- K-Pop’s Next U.S. Breakthrough – While K-Pop and Hallyu more generally remained popular in much of the world, especially with the release of Descendants of the Sun, K-Pop continued to have difficulty breaking into the U.S. market. The English language debut of CL, Lifted, was expected to give K-Pop its first breakout in the U.S. since Psy, but the album has yet to produce a chart single in the United States.
- South Korea’s Trade Policy – Events on the trade front have played out largely as expected. While TPP, should it be revived, will be an issue for the next Korean administration, there has been significant progress on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) talks that include the ASEAN, China, India, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea.
- Has Samsung Turned the Corner? – After two difficult years Samsung had turned the corner in 2016 with the successful launch of the Galaxy 7 and the new Edge. However, all of Samsung’s progress melted down with the battery issues of the Galaxy Note 7. As a result, next year will again be a key year for Samsung as it once more looks to turn another corner and rebuild consumer confidence after the issues with the Note 7.
Beyond the events that we expected, here is a look at some of the unexpected events that helped to shape 2016:
- Multiple Nuclear Tests and the Advancement of North Korea’s Nuclear Program – Before we even published our look ahead to 2016, North Korea had conducted its first nuclear test of the year. It would go on to break with its pattern of only conducting a single test in a year by conducting a second nuclear test in September. While much attention has focused on the significant increase in North Korean missile launches and tests in 2016, the most significant step may have been in the advances the program took in developing a second strike capability. Though initial tests of a submarine launched ballistic missile failed, North Korea had made progress before the year’s end.
- The Closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex – South Korea took the unexpected step of closing the Kaesong Industrial Complex in response to North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2016. The closure was significant for several reasons. Not that long beforehand South Korea had been pushing to internationalize the complex to avoid the prospect of the complex being shut down after North Korea had withdrawn its workers in 2013 for political purposes. Kaesong also held symbolic importance as the last remaining connection between North and South Korea, as well as the last vestige of the prior sunshine policy. While closing Kaesong was a significant step it may have played a role in encouraging the international community to take stronger steps against North Korea.
- International Sanctions on North Korea – While there is nothing necessarily surprising about the international community sanctioning North Korea over its nuclear test, what is significant about the current round of sanctions are the steps that they take to try and limit North Korea’s ability to continue its nuclear program. There are now requirements to inspect North Korean cargo, even that of North Korean diplomats, and caps have been placed on North Korean exports of coal while bans have been placed on other mineral exports. The United States has moved to cut North Korea off from the international financial system and has set in place steps to use secondary sanctions to go after those who enable North Korea. While sanctions are unlikely to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue on their own, they were significantly strengthened in 2016.
- The Political Crisis in South Korea – The corruption and influence peddling scandal surround Choi Soon-sil, a longtime confidant of President Park Geun-hye, engulfed South Korea is a political scandal that has seen millions of South Koreans protest in the streets and the impeachment of Park Geun-hye by the National Assembly. As a result of the scandal, South Korea faces an uncertain political future in 2017. Even before the new year begins, there has already been a split within the conservative Saenuri Party with 29 members leaving to form the New Conservative Party for Reform.
- THAAD and Dispute with China – Beyond sanctions, one of the steps being taken by the United States and South Korea to deter aggression by North Korea is the deployment of the Thermal High Altitude Arial Defense, or THAAD. This is a step that has been strongly opposed by China which sees it as undermining Beijing’s own interests in the region. While the evidence seems thin to date that China has actually done anything more than complain, there have been concerns that China will retaliate economically against South Korea by restricting its exports of Hallyu to the China and Chinese tourism in South Korea. Taking such steps would harm Chinese as well as South Korean interests.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Gage Skidmore’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.