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Korea: The 5 most important foreign policy events of 2014

Korea: The 5 most important foreign policy events of 2014

The end of the year is a nice time to reflect on big events and try to prioritise them. This is often seen as a fool's errand. There are so many events, and weighing their causal significance, in real time particularly, seems impossible. Still, assigning causal weight is what we are supposed to do in social science; it is what makes us different from pundits who just assign causality to their favorite arguments. So even if our judgments are poor, we still have to try.

What that in mind, here are the top five foreign policy events for Korea (where I live and work) for 2014.

The relevant benchmark is security events which impacted the security of the two Koreas, specifically those which impacted their competition and moved the debate about North Korean collapse and/or unification. All in all, South Korea had a pretty good year, while North Korea struggled. Indeed, North Korea is now so isolated (points 1 and 5 below), that denuclearisation is becoming ever more unlikely: to give up its best deterrence against a hostile region would be folly.

Anyway, here's that list: [fold]

1. Improving Xi-Park relations, and the mini-freeze between Beijing and Pyongyang

There's a lot of nattering about the good relationship between South Korean President Park Geun-Hye and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Pro-American South Korean conservatives have accused her of being a sinophile and preferring Xi to Obama.

I have never understood this criticism. I suppose very partisan Americans might see Park's supposed 'sinophilia' as a threat to the alliance. But that is pretty myopic. The whole point of the alliance is to control, if not eventual dispose of, North Korea. And this is precisely what Park is trying to wrangle from Xi. China now holds the key to North Korea. It pays Pyongyang's bills, allows massive sanctions-busting along the border, provides political cover at the UN and elsewhere (point 5 below), and so on. North Korea has no other meaningful allies to carry its costs. So if Park can slowly pull Xi away from Pyongyang, that is a huge achievement. We should all be cheering for this and the distance it has already created between North Korea and China. 

2. Kim Jong Un's disappearance

Ah, wasn't the autumn fun? For six weeks you could indulge all your paranoid fantasies and conspiracy theories about North Korea, and by mid-October, Kim Jong-Un's disappearance was so lengthy that saying nutball stuff (eg. he was overthrown in a coup and his sister has taken over the country) was actually credible.

Too bad none of the fun was true. But we did learn some things few of us want to admit, the most important being that the regime can fly on autopilot. There may be a neo-patrimonial sun-king cult at the top, but there are also institutions below – however deformed, neofeudal, or mafiaosi. And they did a pretty good job holding the DPRK together during Kim Jong-Il's sudden illness (fall 2008), after Kim Jong-Il's sudden death (December 2011), and again this time. So don't get too excited for regime collapse next time some high figure dies suddenly or is purged.

3. Decision to permanently delay OPCON transfer

This probably the most under-reported of all my points in this list, given how dull and bureaucratic it is. I wrote on this last month for The Interpreter. OPCON is the 'operational control' of the South Korean military in wartime. OPCON is currently in the hands of a US four-star general, in order to ensure unity of command during a war. (In peacetime, OPCON belongs to the South Koreans, naturally.)

Needless to say, this is controversial. Many South Koreans, especially on the left, see US OPCON as an infringement on South Korean sovereignty (it is) and a major provocation to North Korea (it isn't). So under South Korea's most recent liberal president last decade, an agreement was struck to return OPCON to Seoul. But the right in South Korea strongly opposed this as (correctly) reducing the American sense of commitment to South Korean defence. After conservatives re-took the presidency, OPCON was repeatedly delayed until last month, when the delay was effectively made permanent by pushing the issue to the 2020s. In other words, the US commitment here will indefinitely remain as it has been.

4. The Kono Statement pseudo-review 

2014 was another bad year for rapprochement between Japan and Korea. The low point was probably Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's decision to revisit Japan's apology for the sexual enslavement of Korean women (the 'comfort women') during World War II. This apology, known as the Kono Statement, was examined for politicisation, and Abe indeed found what he wanted – that Seoul pressured Tokyo over the crafting of the statement. But then Abe decided not to alter it anyway.

I don't understand this at all, and said so on The Interpreter at the time. What is the point of running a 'review' – which everyone knew would be politicised and give Abe what he wanted – but then not change the statement in response? Abe thus got the worst of both worlds: he convinced the South Koreans once again that the Japanese Right is unrepentant about wartime atrocities, while simultaneously inflaming and the disappointing Japanese conservatives who want to dump the Kono Statement altogether. This outcome makes everything worse – Seoul and Tokyo are as far apart as ever, while Japanese conservatives' revanchism has now spread into government. Yikes.

5. The UN Commission of Inquiry report on North Korean human rights

Early this year, the UN told everybody what everybody already knew: that North Korean gulags are on par with the Nazi Holocaust. But this has turned out to be a pretty big deal, bigger I think than most of us thought when it was released. The COI report has acquired a global credibility that no amount of reports from the US Government or NGOs could, and now there is discussion of sending the North Korean leadership before the International Criminal Court. I think this report broke through, because many less developed states intrinsically distrust US human rights pronouncements as either self-serving, hypocritical (post-Abu Ghraib), or 'human rights imperialism.' But the UN is trusted in much of the global South because it is far more open to their concerns. So a UN report on North Korea is turning out to have far more weight in moving global public opinion than anyone thought.

Happily, China may be forced into publicly voting to prevent a referral of North Korea to the ICC. That would be a huge victory, as it would starkly reveal to the world just how much China protects its hideous, Orwellian client. And such embarrassing publicity is probably the best way to pull China from North Korea.

BONUS: 'Events' that weren't:

6. The curious lack of impact of the Sewol tragedy

At the time, the sinking of the Sewol ferry got enormous play in the local and global media. Pundits across Korea talked of it re-setting politics for years and beginning the decline of the Park Presidency. The opposition took up the banner of Sewol for the year's elections – and lost three times on it. What happened to all that social anger? It's still not clear.

7. Japan's non-remilitarisation

If the Korean media or government made a list such as this one, I have little doubt that it would include the re-militarisation of Japan. It is perennial Korean concern, frequently wildly exaggerated, and under Abe, it has gained new life. But Japan actually woefully underspends on defence, a truth widely recognised outside the region.

Happy holidays, all.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Christian Senger.

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