Back To Top

Another tumultuous year for Northeast Asia

Trump stokes uncertainties in relations; NK nuclear program to accelerate

South Korea faces another turbulent year, as the geostrategic dynamics surrounding Northeast Asia are poised to ebb and flow with an incoming US leadership of Donald Trump, while North Korea spurs its development of nuclear weapons.

The Sino-US rivalry would continue to intensify across the region, yet this time the Trump administration’s relationship with Moscow is expected to act as a major variable.

With an early presidential election looming, the alliance between Seoul and Washington could be put to the test if the next South Korean leader moves to shelve their joint decision to deploy a US missile shield here, which triggered China’s stern protest.

After years of impasse, South Korea and Japan had been mending their fences since their settlement on the comfort women dispute in December 2015. But uncertainties remain given the unbridled political and public backlash over the deal, as well as a recently inked military intelligence-sharing pact.

Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, picked uncertainty, obscurity and instability as three keywords to drive the regional diplomatic and security landscape this year, with Trump being a top policy factor. 

South Korean citizens on Sunday watch North Korean leader Kim Jong-un make a speech on TV at Seoul Station. (Yonhap)
South Korean citizens on Sunday watch North Korean leader Kim Jong-un make a speech on TV at Seoul Station. (Yonhap)

“Under (President Barack) Obama, the Sino-US relationship was about a mix of cooperation and competition. Now competition and conflict are most likely to deepen across the board, from trade to security, which will have an impact throughout Northeast Asia,” he said at a recent seminar in Seoul.

“In contrast, the US-Russia relations would improve substantially, which may result in a whole new triangle. This could possibly be helpful for Seoul to some extent, as Russia’s clout grows and limits China’s somewhat excessive influence in the Korean Peninsula.”

Trump factor

In the wake of Trump’s win and Brexit, the current international trends of anti-globalization and nationalism alike will likely last for the time being. This has prompted leaders around the world to put more priority on domestic economy, trade and military spending than alliances and multinational partnerships.

On the campaign trail, the real estate magnet demanded Seoul, Tokyo and other US allies shoulder greater defense costs. He also labeled a South Korea-US free trade agreement a “job killer,” while accusing China of stealing US factories and manipulating currency, among others.

Trump’s focus on domestic issues and de facto departure from Obama’s rebalance to Asia may come as something of a relief to Beijing, which sees Washington’s alliance-building and military encirclement as a tactic to contain its rise.

The incoming administration, however, will likely continue to intensify its efforts to keep China in check, this time in partnership with Russia, as Henry Kissinger told then-President Richard Nixon ahead of his 1972 historic trip to Beijing as his national security adviser.

“At this point, the future direction of the Trump administration’s China policy is uncertain,” Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, said in an analysis.

“It will be focused on economy and trade, but in line with the aforementioned policy of ‘peace through strength,’ Trump might pressure China to a great extent in the security context as well.”

Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, has already sent mixed signals.

Shortly before his election victory, he broke a decadesold custom by accepting a phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, to the wrath of Beijing that cherishes the “One China” policy. A week later he named Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, whose ties with President Xi Jinping date back to the 1980s, as the ambassador to China. Beijing welcomed it, hailing him as an “old friend of the Chinese people.” Then again, Trump tapped Peter Navarro, a University of California, Irvine economist and vocal China critic, to head a new White House team in charge of trade and industry.

Xi, meanwhile, may respond to outside pressure with a hardline approach amid a slowing economy, especially as he seeks to consolidate his leadership at a major party congress in September by elevating allies to key posts.

In Seoul, concerns are rising that the North Korea nuclear issue could be put on the back burner if the Sino-US standoff escalates over trade, currency and the South China Sea.

Evolving NK threats

Meanwhile, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are set to pick up pace. With five underground blasts and six long-range rocket launches, the communist state is deemed to be inching closer to master the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile topped with an atomic warhead, capable of striking the US mainland.

In his New Year address on Sunday, leader Kim Jong-un said his country was in the “closing phase” of preparations for an ICBM test. Pyongyang made a “groundbreaking breakthrough” from a series of experiments last year and will steadily boost its capabilities for a “pre-emptive nuclear attack” unless South Korea and the US halt joint military drills, he warned.

His threat is in line with the remarks by Thae Yong-ho, who was the North’s No. 2 official at its embassy in London until his arrival in the South last summer. The former diplomat said at a news conference last week that the regime aims to complete the nuclear development by the end of 2017, targeting leadership transitions in Seoul and Washington.

“Any friction between dominant powers or chaos in the existing world order poses both opportunities and challenges to North Korea in terms of reinforcing its strategic leverage, but in general it’s helpful,” said Cha Du-hyun, special foreign policy adviser to Gyeonggi Province Governor and a former fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis.

“To show everything it has and secure an edge in a future potential compromise, the North may stage an unprecedented level of provocation before or shortly after Trump is sworn in, such as a high-altitude test of electromagnetic pulse bombs coupled with a nuclear-tipped missile, or a new, greater-scale underground detonation.”

As for Pyongyang, Trump is forecast to stay tough, surrounded by hardline, retired military commanders as his top foreign policy and security aides. He has criticized Kim’s nuclear ambition, calling him a “maniac,” though he displayed his willingness to meet the young ruler.

A warmer relationship between Washington and Moscow could provide fresh momentum for the nuclear stalemate, experts say.

Yet Seoul may face a dilemma as China may loosen its implementation of international sanctions or resist further tightening them in the event of another provocation by the North in protest against mounting US pressure.

Another possibility is a fresh peace offensive from Pyongyang. If the Kim regime conducts a successful ICBM test, it could declare a moratorium on additional nuclear and missile tests and offer to return to denuclearization negotiations alongside peace treaty talks, as Thae indicated.

“The Trump administration may attempt dialogue with North Korea at its early stage. But if the North continues to demand its acceptance as a nuclear state, it will likely further strengthen sanctions and pressure,” said Lee Dae-woo, a researcher at the Sejong Institute.

“Even if the nuclear negotiations reopen, the US is likely to demand an intensive inspection on the North Korean facilities, given Trump’s criticism on the Iran deal and opposition to ‘declaratory talks.’”

Presidential election in Seoul

Whether President Park Geun-hye is impeached or not, South Korea will elect a new leader in 2017.

Last year’s political turmoil kindled by a presidential scandal complicated the prospects for the race, with no clear front-runner in the offing.

The next president will face a mountain of foreign policy and security challenges that determine the country’s relations with critical partners in the region and beyond.

As Trump suggested, for instance, he or she will have to tackle a possible renegotiation of the FTA and fend off calls for a sharp increase in Seoul’s defense spending.

At greater stake is the plan to station the US’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system here, slated for this summer, and the December 2015 settlement on wartime sex slavery with Japan.

Not only opposition bigwigs but some conservative presidential aspirants label the initiatives as Park’s legacy, vowing to upend or renegotiate them in the new government.

Asan’s Choi singled out the THAAD plan as the “first issue to be put to the test” by the Seoul-Washington ties over the next several years. China, which considers the weapon to be directed at it, has been ratcheting up pressure on Seoul with economic retaliatory steps since the allies’ announcement early last year.

The comfort women accord brought a turnaround in the checkered relationship between South Korea and Japan following years of bitter spats.

Yet it instantly sparked heated backlash from the public and the opposition due to the government’s failure to consult in advance with the victims and a controversial clause that implies a removal of a girl statue erected in front of the Japanese Embassy here to honor the women.

Leading Japanese policymakers and politicians, meanwhile, continued to deny or downplay the wartime atrocities. Last Thursday, the defense minister visited the Yasukuni war shrine criticized for whitewashing the country’s imperial past.

Then on Friday, Tokyo lodged a complaint as a civic group launched another girl statue near the Japanese consulate in Busan, two days after a local district office unilaterally took it down, prompting residents’ uproar.

“A volatile global economy, the new US administration’s murky Asia Pacific strategy and the North Korea issue alike are factors that can bring South Korea and Japan closer,” KNDA professor Cho Yang-hyun wrote in a 2017 outlook published by the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security affiliated with the Foreign Ministry.

“But amid the impeachment campaign, the leadership vacuum and weakening grip on external relations raised calls for a revamp in Japan policy. If the comfort women deal and military intelligence-sharing pact become a major political issue, the possibility can’t be ruled out that the bilateral ties could turn confrontational.”

By Shin Hyon-hee