PacNet #26 – Why South Koreans See Little Difference in Biden’s North Korea Policy

Does the South Korean public see a difference in the American administrations when it comes to North Korea? Our survey data suggests most do not.

Each US president since Bill Clinton has tried to convince North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program, and each has failed. As such, the extent to which the South Korean public sees a difference across administrations is unclear, although previous data found that the public strongly opposed the Trump administration’s demand of a fivefold increase in payments from South Korea toward hosting US troops in the country.

We conducted a national web survey in South Korea on March 11-16, administered by Macromill Emrbain, using quota sampling for age, gender, and geographic region. We asked 1,107 respondents: “Which US administration do you think had a better North Korea policy?”

A clear majority (57.45%) believe that the Trump and Biden administrations were about the same concerning North Korea policy. This option was selected the most across supporters of the two largest parties, the progressive Democratic Party (DP) and conservative People Power Party (PPP), but also the smaller parties (the social democratic Justice Party (JP) and the center-right People’s Party (PP)), as well as those with no party preference. Across all groups, respondents were slightly more likely to have chosen the Biden administration over the Trump administration as having a “better” policy, even though Biden has not publicly said much about North Korea. There was no additional question as to why this was chosen, but respondents could be evaluating Biden’s leadership style or personality traits, or weighing Trump’s demands for South Korea to pay a substantially higher cost share, rather than responding to specific North Korea policy.

We also asked respondents to evaluate, on a five-point scale (“strongly oppose” to “strongly support”) how they feel about the presence of American military bases in South Korea. We found 55.83% of respondents supported the presence, compared to 10.84% in opposition. Views of the two administrations, broken down by opinions on the US troop presence, reveal the same pattern as before: a majority (or at least plurality) say that the Trump and Biden administrations were about the same. However, we also find that those more supportive of the US presence are more likely to pick one administration as better than the other. Why this is the case is unclear, though it may reflect greater attention to the United States or interest in security matters.

The results of our data reflect increasing ambivalence about North Korea among the South Korean public. As with previous survey research, our survey found that less than 10% of respondents thought about North Korea frequently. While missile tests and worsening relations between Seoul and Pyongyang may reengage the public temporarily, continued engagement remains a challenge.

The results potentially have implications for President-Elect Yoon Suk-yeol. Yoon’s policy proposals center around policy alignment with the United States, improving relations with Japan and Southeast Asia, bolstering defenses, and stricter enforcement of the North Korean Human Rights Act. Our data suggests that Yoon’s approach could encounter resistance domestically. The election of Yoon suggests a public that wants a departure from the engagement policies of Moon. Yet, the general lack of attention by the public to North Korea suggests that the public will only reengage on North Korea in light of a major breakthrough or if a crisis occurs, such as a resumption of nuclear tests or a military skirmish that results in South Korean deaths. If this is the case, and the public attributes such inter-Korean tensions to Yoon’s policy, a reengaged public may be less supportive of Yoon.

It is also currently unclear whether South Koreans understand the Biden administration’s policy and how it differs from his predecessor, suggesting the need for a clearer articulation of a North Korea policy by an administration focused on other areas such as Ukraine, inflation, and pandemic recovery. Rather, the public may assess the Biden administration not on policy differences, but as a return to a more predictable leadership style. With a new administration in Seoul, such positive evaluations may not continue, especially in the event of increased tensions or dramatic deterioration of security conditions on the peninsula.

Furthermore, Yoon has signaled support for pre-emptive strikes on North Korea under certain circumstances (e.g. signs that a North Korean missile launch towards South Korea is imminent), and it is unclear whether this, or other measures departing from how past Seoul administrations have handled Pyongyang, would receive support from the Biden administration. Increased public support for South Korea to procure nuclear weapons themselves may undermine efforts at a unified stance on North Korea. More broadly, a Biden administration unable to present a distinct North Korea policy, other than some middle ground between Obama and Trump, provides an opportunity for North Korea to exploit differences between the allies. This may lead to both inconsistent policies on deterrence as well as frustration in the Yoon administration as to its ability to strengthen ties with Washington, further encouraging Seoul to act independently of its alliance partner. The Biden administration should use this opportunity to signal its commitment to the US-ROK alliance via a coordinated response to North Korea, while the Yoon administration may wish to dampen expectations that the South Korean public will identify much of a change out of Washington.

Timothy S. Rich (timothy.rich@wku.edu) is an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University and director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL).

Ian Milden (ian.milden650@topper.wku.edu) is a recent graduate from the Master’s in Public Administration program at Western Kentucky University. He previously graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and History from Western Kentucky University.

Mallory Hardesty (mallory.hardesty769@topper.wku.edu) is an honors undergraduate student researcher at Western Kentucky University majoring in History and Political Science.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #11 – Nuclear submarines for our Pacific allies: When to say yes

An earlier version of this article appeared in Real Clear Defense. 

On March 9, South Korea will elect a new president. One of the first things the new president will have to determine is whether or not to get Washington to support South Korea’s development and fueling of a nuclear submarine fleet. The progressive candidate, Lee Jae-myung, has publicly vowed to press the United States to cut a submarine technology transfer deal for South Korea similar to what Washington struck with Australia. In a recent interview, Mr. Lee noted, “It is absolutely necessary for us to have those subs.”

But is it? Mr. Lee’s key opponent, Yoon Suk-yeol, says no. He favors investing in military space and airborne surveillance systems instead. In fact, if South Korea is serious about neutralizing the naval threats it faces, it would do far better with a sound mix of advanced non-nuclear anti-submarine and anti-surface systems than with nuclear submarines.

A detailed study, which The Naval War College Review just published, spells out why. Commissioned by my center and authored by James Campbell Jr., of Naval Sea System Command, “Seoul’s Misguided Desire for Nuclear Submarines” details how poorly nuclear submarines would perform in the relatively closed East China, Yellow, and East Seas, which border Korea. His conclusion: The best way to track and contain North Korean naval threats and help the United States and Japan monitor the First Island Chain (the islands connecting Russia, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines) is not with nuclear submarines. Nuclear submarines are vastly more expensive and far less effective than a proper mix of advanced non-nuclear naval systems for these particular missions.

Such systems include upgrading South Korea’s air-independent propulsion submarines, anti-submarine aircraft, and naval surface combatants; upgrading, sharing, and analyzing acoustic and non-acoustic anti-submarine sensor information with Washington and Seoul; and investing in new anti-submarine technologies. The latter include airborne and underwater drones, wave runners, artificial intelligence-enhanced anti-submarine systems and the like.

As for South Korea using nuclear submarines to launch conventional missile “second strikes”—yet another argument some South Korean naval advocates make for “going nuclear”—using these boats for this mission compares poorly against using air and mobile ground-launched missile systems. These are far more survivable, can fire many more rounds, and cost far less per flight. Finally, if Seoul is eager to secure a blue-water navy, then developing advanced surface combatants, including small aircraft carriers, is more cost effective and avoids compounding the growing challenge of identifying nuclear submarine friends and foes in the open Western Pacific.

Sensible for Seoul, this set of recommendation is also sound for Tokyo. From bases in Japan, super-quiet, advanced conventional submarines and other select non-nuclear systems can monitor and contain Chinese and North Korean naval threats within the First Island Chain far better than nuclear submarines.

What, then, about Australia? Located thousands of miles from China’s coast, Canberra requires naval platforms that can quickly travel significant distances and stay on station for extended periods. For this purpose, nuclear submarines make sense. In short, it’s different.

Why belabor these points? First, if Washington wants Seoul and Tokyo to make military investments that are leveraged to deter North Korea and China, preventing South Korea and Japan from wasting billions of dollars on nuclear submarine cooperation is essential. This, in turn, requires making a no-nonsense distinction between Australia’s naval requirements and those of Seoul and Tokyo.

Second, green lighting South Korea on nuclear submarines risks spreading the bomb. Nuclear submarines require enriched uranium fuel. Seoul, which attempted to build nuclear weapons in the 1970s, has been asking Washington to allow it to enrich uranium now for nearly a decade. So far, Washington has said no. Why? Even if Seoul promised to enrich uranium ever so slightly, it could flip any enrichment plant it ran to make weapons-grade uranium in a matter of days. Bottom line: If Seoul pursued its own nuclear naval program, it would alarm Japan (a historical antagonist that also has pondered going nuclear) and disrupt alliance relations with Washington, Seoul’s nuclear guarantor.

What’s to be done? It would help if Seoul weren’t the only one being asked to restrain its nuclear aspirations. In this regard, my center has proposed having Australia commit to a moratorium on enriching uranium tied to its 30-year AUKUS nuclear submarine deal. It also has recommended that the United States and Japan join South Korea in suspending their commercialization of fast reactors and the recycling of nuclear weapons explosive plutonium. This would help spotlight similar militarily worrisome plutonium production-related activities in China.

Finally, Washington should work with Europe to help Seoul and Tokyo tackle significant cutting-edge defense related projects of their own. For South Korea, this might be developing space surveillance systems. For Japan, it could be advanced communications, computing capabilities and cryptology to crack China’s great firewall.

Each of these steps would help. First, however, South Korea and Japan need to conclude that their acquisition of nuclear submarines would be, at best, a dangerous distraction.

Henry Sokolski (henry@npolicy.org) is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, Virginia, and author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future. He served as deputy for nonproliferation policy in the office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense during the George H.W. Bush administration.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael B Zingaro

PacNet #54 – What AUKUS means for Malaysia’s technological future

When the leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced their new trilateral security partnership, AUKUS, on Sept. 15, Malaysia’s prime minister released a statement expressing concern about its impact on stability in Southeast Asia. Malaysia’s minister of foreign affairs and minister of defense separately issued a statement in support of the prime minister’s position, underscoring the risks of a conventional and nuclear arms race, particularly in the South China Sea.

These statements are worth parsing out. At the outset, however, it is important to note that despite Malaysia’s reservations about AUKUS, the government has continued to welcome deeper relations with all three countries in the pact, bilaterally and through multilateral platforms such as the Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA). What’s more, nuclear-powered submarines are only a piece of AUKUS. Of greater significance to Malaysia, and the rest of Southeast Asia, is the longer technological arc of AUKUS, which will reshape the regional strategic landscape.

The nuclear objection

Although uneasiness about AUKUS was downplayed as overhype or strategic naiveté, Putrajaya’s position is an assertion of Malaysia’s long-standing foreign policy. The underpinnings of AUKUS bring to bear Malaysia’s stance on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, non-alignment, as well as its management of the South China Sea dispute all at once.

Some may have interpreted Prime Minister Ismail Sabri’s statement that AUKUS could trigger a regional nuclear arms race as misunderstanding the nature of the deal. AUKUS, of course, involves nuclear-powered—rather than nuclear-armed—submarines. However, AUKUS marks the first time a non-nuclear weapon state would receive nuclear-powered submarines and, therefore, this raises uncertainties about proliferation and international legal safeguards. These questions, although distant for now, remain deeply unsettling for Malaysia given its position vis-à-vis the international nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regimes. For example, Malaysia has tabled a United Nations resolution every year since the 1996 International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons. The resolution underscores the ICJ’s call for nuclear disarmament “in all aspects under strict and effective international control.” Since AUKUS exploits a loophole in existing nuclear safeguards regimes, Malaysia believes that there is a risk that this will undermine the disarmament goal.

But even if Malaysia’s nonproliferation concerns with AUKUS may be misplaced, Putrajaya is not alone in fearing that it will trigger a conventional arms race among the major powers in Southeast Asia’s backyard—specifically, in the South China Sea. In looking at AUKUS, Indonesia’s foreign ministry, for instance, voiced “deep concern” over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region. Even Singapore and Vietnam, which are often described in the media as welcoming of AUKUS, gave carefully crafted responses that suggest they are cautious. Both states stress the importance of regional peace, stability, cooperation, and prosperity.

Partners and problems

Despite Malaysia’s apprehension of AUKUS, Putrajaya has continued to welcome closer bilateral and multilateral ties with Washington, London, and Canberra, including in the areas of security and defense. Only a month after AUKUS was announced, Malaysia’s Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein affirmed the country’s commitment to the 50-year-old FPDA, the overlap in FPDA and AUKUS partners notwithstanding. As part of the FPDA, Malaysia participated in a 10-day exercise, Bersama Gold 2021, involving 25 fighter jets, six support aircraft, six helicopters, 10 maritime ships, one submarine, and over 2,000 military personnel alongside Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Kingdom in the international waters of the South China Sea. Malaysia also hosted the FPDA’s anniversary celebration and the FPDA defense minister’s meeting following the exercise.

This proclivity to segment relationships based on issues and interests as well as the desire to preserve an expansive network of ties with competing major powers are a key element of Malaysia’s foreign policy approach. This is true with AUKUS countries, as it is with China. Despite sustained harassment by Chinese vessels around Malaysian waters, the Malaysia-China relationship remains warm and friendly. Putrajaya has sought to sequester its problems with Beijing in the South China Sea from the economic, political, and socio-cultural dimensions in the bilateral relationship. This separation of issues both between and within partnerships is a feature rather than a bug of Malaysia’s foreign relations. It does not, however, always work perfectly.

Technological pathways

Accordingly, to retain geopolitical space for itself in the middle of deepening fissures between the United States and its allies on the one hand and China on the other, Putrajaya will need to intensify its diplomatic engagement with all sides proactively rather than reactively. This will require looking at trends which now appear to coalesce around technology as well as the governance and regulatory frameworks that underpin it. AUKUS underscores this point.

Nuclear submarine technology for Australia is but a “first initiative” under AUKUS. In the pipeline is trilateral collaboration on cyber, artificial intelligence (AI), quantum, and undersea capabilities. While the subtext for these plans may be defense technology competition with China, there are converging opportunities for cooperation between Malaysia and the three AUKUS countries that could empower Putrajaya in shaping the regional tech landscape. The most accessible, benign, and functional entry point for tech cooperation is the digital economy. Much of this is already underway in Malaysia, with ongoing industry partnerships as well as capacity-building and training efforts to improve cyber security and the operationalization of AI in various economic sectors.

There is one practical way Malaysia can carve out strategic agency while helping chart the region’s tech-based future amid rival powers. The government could create either a coordinating ministerial or ambassadorial portfolio specific to the cross-cutting role of technology. This senior official would stitch together the country’s technology interests in trade and economy, national security, and foreign affairs, and register Malaysia’s perspectives on tech’s rules of the road—from ethics and norms to standards and laws—in bilateral, multilateral, and multi-stakeholder discussions. Although the National Cyber Security Agency of Malaysia currently functions as the lead coordinating agency on cyber security matters, a senior official representing the country’s cross-sectoral interests in broader emergent/emerging technologies could help streamline multi-faceted policies at the domestic level. Additionally, a single, senior point of contact could facilitate cooperation with AUKUS countries and others on new and unfolding technologies. In both substance and form, a coordinating minister or ambassador would recognize tech’s reach across agency silos and the importance of a whole-of-government approach in contributing to the evolving governance frameworks of technology.

Several countries outside of Southeast Asia already have representatives in similar roles that reflect the ubiquity of technology transcending a range of agendas in government, industry, and civil society. Malaysia could benefit from that model. A focused and active Malaysia, along with its ASEAN counterparts, offering thought leadership on tech governance would not only design the country’s digital future in a more comprehensive manner but also potentially help the region avoid the pitfalls of US-China decoupling.

Malaysia may not welcome AUKUS. But it should use it to shape rules of the road to ensure that Southeast Asia’s tech and strategic landscape remains inclusive rather than exclusive.

The author would like to thank the Asia Pacific Team from the Defence and Security Foresight Group (DSFG) for their support during the development of this piece. 

Elina Noor (ENoor@asiasociety.org) is Director, Political-Security Affairs and Deputy Director, Washington, D.C. Office at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

PacNet #45 – False Dawn: The Resumption and Re-ending of the Inter-Korean Hotline

This article summarizes the author’s chapter in the new issue of Comparative Connections, which can be read in its entirety here.

Summer 2021 saw a false dawn on the Korean Peninsula, hardly the first, but surely one of the shortest. On July 27 both North and South announced the reconnection of inter-Korean hotlines, severed for over a year. In Seoul, hopes were high that this signalled a fresh willingness by Pyongyang to engage, not only with South Korea but also the United States. Yet this “breakthrough” lasted barely a fortnight. When the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) began their regular August military exercises—albeit scaled back and wholly computer-based—North Korea snarled and stopped answering the phone. Inter-Korean relations remain frozen, as they have been ever since early 2019. With Moon Jae-in’s presidency due to end next May, any real melting of the ice looks increasingly like a challenge for his successor.

War Games: Shadow-Boxing?

To understand the hotline, first consider the politics behind US-ROK military exercises. Since Donald Trump summarily cancelled upcoming regular US-ROK military exercises at his Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un in June 2018, the usual calendar of spring and summer allied drills has been much disrupted. Far from appreciating that olive branch, Kim saw this concession as a chance to press harder.

After several changes of name, these drills have waxed and waned, reflecting the state of relations between North Korea and its foes. Trump, soon followed by COVID-19, ushered in a new era of cancelled or smaller maneuvers. So Kim had less to worry about, but he chose to go for broke, insisting that to hold joint exercises at all, in any form or on any scale, is a hostile act. This has created a new cycle, where every spring and summer the allies must decide what kind of drills, if any, to stage.

With exercises due in August, Minister of Unification Lee In-young on June 6 called for “maximum flexibility,” insisting that joint drills “should never work in a way that causes or further escalates tensions on the Korean Peninsula.” That was tantamount to calling for their cancellation, which Lee could not do directly. This kicked off a fresh round of the perennial argument in Seoul about the right balance of stick and carrot, force readiness versus peace process, and so on. Besides playing out in the media, politically more important was the debate inside the ruling Democratic Party (DP), and above all necessarily hidden discussions within Moon Jae-in’s government.

Arguably, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) and the military establishment, not to mention Washington, would not countenance complete cancellation (in 2018 Trump forced their hand). Even as public debate continued, planning and preparations were surely under way. Meanwhile, as we now know, at some point and in some form Moon and Kim began exchanging messages about reactivating inter-Korean hotlines, unused for a year after Pyongyang blew up the Kaesong joint liaison office in June 2020. Ever since then, the South has faithfully called as agreed at 0900 each day, but gotten no reply. (Talk of the lines being “cut” misleads: They still work, but the North chooses not to pick up.)

Lights! Camera! Action! They’re Talking Again!

Then, on July 27 and with much fanfare, the Blue House in Seoul and the official North Korean news agency KCNA in Pyongyang both announced the reconnection of inter-Korean hotlines. In a triumph of hope over expectation all too familiar in inter-Korean relations (but we never learn), hopes ran high that after a two-year hiatus that Pyongyang might finally be ready to engage again. Not only with Seoul, but also the not-so-new Biden administration.

For a week or two, inter-Korean ties seemed to flicker back into life. Beyond the formality of checking the lines daily, there were signs of substance. The two sides used the line to compare tallies and positions of Chinese vessels illegally fishing in the West Sea near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto inter-Korean maritime border, which the DPRK has never formally recognized. Besides sharing notes to repel intruders, such liaison in sensitive and sometimes contested waters would help avoid any risk of accidental clashes.

But it went no further. An eager Seoul broached concrete proposals—virtual talks, family reunions by videolink—but got no immediate reply. Then Kim Yo Jong weighed in. On Aug. 1, four days after the lines were restored, Kim Jong Un’s sister warned against “premature hasty judgment. What I think is that the restoration of the communication liaison lines should not be taken as anything more than just the physical reconnection.” In particular, the “unpleasant story that joint military exercises between the south Korean army and the US forces could go ahead as scheduled” would surely “becloud” inter-Korean prospects.

On Aug. 8 Seoul announced that joint drills would go ahead, albeit computer-based with no field exercises. This predictably prompted an angrier second salvo from Ms. Kim, attacking the “perfidious” South for this “unwelcoming act of self-destruction for which a dear price should be paid.” That was on Aug. 10. In the morning the hotlines still worked, but by 5 pm the North was not picking up. Nor has it done so since.

As You Were

What to make of this episode? The Blue House denied insinuations by Yoon Seok-youl—a contender for the conservative opposition People Power Party (PPP)’s presidential nomination next year—that a secret deal lay behind the hotlines restoration. If that is true, then it fell apart in record time. The National Intelligence Service (NIS) claims the initiative came from Kim Jong Un. If that is the case, then one hypothesis is that Kim was testing Moon over the joint drills. Perhaps he thought this sop might tip the balance of the debate in Seoul. It did swell the ranks of those in the ruling party who favored cancellation, but not enough. Once it was clear the exercises would go ahead, Kim duly exacted punishment, reverting to noncommunication and the status quo ante.

Reading Moon’s mind is harder. Though an idealist on inter-Korean ties, he is also a canny politician whose time is running out: his successor will be elected on March 9 next year. He may have felt he had little to lose, and we don’t know what was said in the letters he and Kim exchanged. Unclear too is what input, if any, the foreign ministry or even MOU had in any of this. Reportedly, the Blue House handles dealings with Pyongyang itself, no doubt via the NIS. Did Moon reckon Pyongyang would not really mind the joint exercises, despite Kim Yo Jong’s clarity on the issue?

After Moon: More of the Same?

As a presidency winds down it is natural to try to peer into the future. With ROK presidents constitutionally limited to a single five-year term, less than half a year from now South Korea will have a new president, due to take office May 9.

Six months is a long time in politics, especially in Seoul. As of now, while Moon Jae-in is becoming a lamer duck (albeit with better poll ratings than most of his predecessors at this stage), the DP looks in better shape than the PPP. Within the DP, ongoing primaries have confirmed a front-runner: Lee Jae-myong, governor of Gyeonggi province which surrounds the capital (indeed, it has become a largely urbanized greater Seoul).

Though not personally or factionally close to Moon, ideologically Lee shares his engagement stance. He also favors conditional sanctions relief for the DPRK. So, if he is the next ROK president, expect policy continuity rather than change. The problem is that Moon’s approach has not worked, even if his government appears in denial on that score. At the very least, Lee (if it is he) will have to be more imaginative in finding ways to break the deadlock.

Postscript

The chapter from which this article is excerpted was completed early in September. There have been fresh developments since, notably two—one skeptical, the other more positive—by Kim Yo Jong to President Moon’s suggestion, made (not for the first time) in a speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 21, of a formal peace treaty to end the 1950-53 Korean War. We might therefore see a renewed bout of inter-Korean dialogue on Moon’s watch after all. Precedent, not least the episode described above, suggests that hopes of a meaningful breakthrough are not high. But let us not prejudge. Prospects will be clearer when the next issue of Comparative Connections appears in January 2022. Watch this space!

Aidan Foster-Carter (afostercarter@aol.com) is honorary senior research fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University, UK. His interest in Korea began in 1968. Since 1997 he has been a full-time analyst and consultant on North and South Korean affairs: writing, lecturing, and broadcasting for academic, business and policy audiences in the UK and worldwide. He has written on inter-Korean relations for Comparative Conections ever since 2001.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.