During a recent meeting with his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in at the White House, US President Donald Trump said that while a step-by-step agreement with North Korea concerning that country’s nuclear program remained on the table, his administration was still focused on “the big deal.” Trump announced plans for his third meeting with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but added that this would require “lengthy preparation.” The South Korean president likewise spoke about the need for the US and North Korean leaders meeting again shortly and underscored the need to maintain the current pace of negotiations.
The response from Pyongyang did not take too long in coming. In a keynote address on April 12 to the Supreme People’s Assembly in Pyongyang, which had earlier officially named him “the supreme representative of all Koreans,” Kim Jong-un said: “If the United States finds a solution acceptable to us, and proposes a meeting between the DPRK and US leaders, we are ready to agree to this once again. I won’t hesitate to sign an agreement, but only if it is written in a way that meets the interests of the DPRK and the United States, is fair and mutually acceptable.”
The April 12 session of the North Korean parliament was attended by a large delegation of the Russian State Duma deputies. Immediately after that, it became known that President Vladimir Putin would meet Kim later this month during a stopover in Vladivostok on his way to Beijing. The North Korean leader’s increasingly frequent political contacts with his Russian and Chinese counterparts reflect a desire to coordinate positions ahead of the next round of the US-North Korean talks.
Well, is there any reason for optimism about the outcome of the forthcoming parley? If so, then it must be extremely cautious. Indeed, in the span of just a few months, Washington and Pyongyang have gone from general promises of denuclearization in exchange for security guarantees made during the June 2018 summit in Singapore, to a failed attempt to agree a roadmap for this process at the Hanoi summit in late February 2019.
Past experience shows that Washington’s attempts to make Pyongyang agree on everything at once were in principle doomed to failure for obvious political and technical reasons.
First off, it has been the factor of time. While Donald Trump hurried to clinch a “big deal” before his first term in office runs out (and not being sure about a second one), his North Korean counterpart was not interested in making this happen for exactly the same reason: as the most recent history shows, a new occupant of the White House often finds it easy to undo what his predecessor has achieved.
Equally obvious are technical reasons why there is no way to fast-track denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The deal on the Iranian nuclear program took years of negotiations and was the result of a mutual compromise (meaning that it is highly unlikely that a deal like this can be achieved in full, much less at once).
Under the present circumstances, any further US-North Korean negotiations would look like a walk across a minefield. If it were up to me, I would suggest the following way to go.
During the third Trump-Kim summit (which, if unsuccessful, will most likely be the last), to adopt a mutually accepted denuclearization roadmap that would say exactly which nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles are to be eliminated, above all, those capable (albeit hypothetically) of reaching US territory.
The sides should also draw up an exhaustive list of facilities of North Korea’s nuclear (and, possibly, missile) programs that would be stopped or eliminated based on the principle of “proving the existence” there of nuclear elements, rather than “proving their absence.” The latter verification path will take us nowhere because, to meet this requirement, Pyongyang would be forced to eliminate all of its engineering and other modern industries. In other words, to return to the pre-industrial era – something it will hardly ever agree to.
And, most importantly, there should be a compulsory and phased implementation of the stated goals. Pyongyang’s next move towards abandoning its nuclear technology should be accompanied by a partial and phased lifting of sanctions imposed on it by the UN Security Council, primarily those, which are damaging the peaceful sectors of the North Korean economy and are hampering the inter-Korean dialogue.
Each of these UN sanctions contains a concrete procedure for their suspension of lifting. At this stage the Security Council is already entering the game as all further negotiations on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula will depend on the agreed position of its permanent members (including the five officially recognized nuclear states).
Here it would be highly advisable to consider the proposal made by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev at a special session of the UN Security Council on the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in January 2018, whereby the official five nuclear states could offer North Korea security guarantees within the framework of the UN Security Council as an important condition for creating an atmosphere of trust and ensuring successful progress towards denuclearization.
By the way, the third US-North Korean summit (if it happens at all) could be held in a trilateral format, as President Moon Jae-in has previously suggested. This would reduce the likelihood of yet another failure and would help ensure speedy security assurances for North Korea in exchange for the country’s nuclear disarmament.
First published in our partner International Affairs
Deciphering North Korea’s Nuclear ‘Obsession’
In the past few decades, nuclear weapons have come to be synonymous with North Korea. The country’s growing nuclear proliferation programme has been a concern for the international community as well as the non-proliferation regime. Despite joint communiques and several rounds of negotiations, denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula remains a distant dream. Nuclear weapons have helped North Korea maintain a credible deterrent against adversaries and, in the process, have achieved a position almost intrinsic to the North Korea regime. In popular perceptions, North Korea is often depicted as a nation obsessed with nuclear weapons. However, popular portrayals often lack nuance and critical assessment which can lead to ignorance and misinformation. A deeper look into North Korea’s ‘obsession’ with nuclear weapons reveals a somewhat different picture; a picture that is strikingly similar to any third world country grappling with its insecurities and dilemmas, however, having some of the most dangerous weapons known to humankind at its disposal.
Origins of the Nuclear ‘Obsession’
With roots dating back to the days of the Korean War in the early 1950s, North Korea’s atomic ambitions have shaped its relations with great powers and neighbours alike for decades. This reliance on nuclear weapons has not come about in a vacuum but in the milieu of several critical reasons. During the Korean War, the Eisenhower administration threatened using nuclear weapons when China and North Korea stalled the ongoing peace talks. Eager to end the war and gain influence on the Korean Peninsula, the United States considered using nuclear weapons several times over the course of the Korean War. It was much recognised that the threat of nuclear weapons was pivotal in inducing the North Korean and Chinese signatures to the eventual Panmunjom Armistice that brought the hostilities to an end. Following the Korean War, the US continued to provoke North Korea by declaring nuclear support to the South and stationing nuclear weapons and troops in the South Korean territory. Given these circumstances, North Korea’s interest in obtaining nuclear weapons intensified.
There were various reasons that contributed to this drive for nuclear proliferation. First, North Korea believed that a nuclear program was important to counter the US nuclear umbrella over the South, which threatened its sovereignty and existence. Second, North Korea feared an emerging South Korean nuclear programme and wanted to pre-empt South’s superiority. It was also economically much more feasible to develop nuclear weapons than indulge in a conventional arms race which the North Korean regime was destined to lose given South Korea’s booming economy. Third, the North Korean regime might have viewed possession of nuclear weapons as a means of gaining diplomatic leverage, perhaps to extract economic concessions from the international community amidst a stagnant economic growth. Lastly, in line with the Juche (roughly translating to self-reliance) ideology, the possession of nuclear weapons would have allowed North Korea to reduce its dependence on China and Russia, at least in security matters. Hence, a desired self-reliance tactic could be better employed.
Until the late 1980s, the United States’ Korean defence strategy was actively pinned on routine plans to use nuclear weapons very early in any emerging combat to counter and terminate North Korea. This aggressive stance was given up after North Korea’s nuclear proliferation programme came to the fore in the 1990s. By this time, North Korean leadership had recognised the need, viability and necessity of nuclear weapons in defining their national interests and facilitating their survival needs.
The 1990s ushered in a new phase in dealing with North Korea. Abandoning direct nuclear threats, the United States turned towards negotiating to denuclearise the country. The Agreed Framework (1994) was negotiated. Under the terms of the agreement, North Korea would freeze and dismantle its nuclear program and comply with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in exchange for Light Water Reactors from the United States. However, in the absence of strict measures and unfulfilled promises, the Agreed Framework eventually failed. While nothing lasting came out of it, for Pyongyang, the Agreed Framework served as a model for future negotiations with the United States. Concessions and aid in exchange for denuclearisation became the template for negotiations with North Korea going forward. This was reflected in the subsequent Sunshine Policy (1998), the Six Party Talks (2003), The Singapore Summit (2018) and the Hanoi Summit (2019). While these attempts at negotiations became commonplace, they were carried out in an air of mistrust and lack of cooperation. No concrete negotiations indicating possible denuclearisation were agreed while North Korea’s nuclear proliferation programme continued to grow.
On the Brink
The recent events on the Korean Peninsula have led to widespread concerns among the international community. On November 18, North Korea test fired yet another Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), the fourth such incident in 2022, since breaking a self-imposed 5-year moratorium in March earlier this year. The latest ICBM test adds to a record breaking year, taking the tally to 60 missiles tested this year. This spate has been met by yet another wave of sanctions and condemnation from the United States, South Korea and Japan. On the other hand, China and Russia have failed to support the sanctions regime, claiming that such sanctions further restrict commencement of talks and risk humanitarian harm.
While North Korea’s aggressive posturing has severely jeopardised peace and stability in the immediate Northeast Asian region as well as the world, the missile tests are not just another ploy to gain economic concessions or diplomatic leverages but hint towards an issue that has plagued peace processes on the Korean Peninsula for decades. Pyongyang’s aggressive nuclear policy is a testament to its growing threat perceptions that have been largely fuelled and maintained by the retaliatory stances of the United States and its allies.
Since assuming office in May earlier this year, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has identified North Korea as Seoul’s ‘main enemy’, advocating in favour of maintaining a strong deterrent against the North Korean aggression, even considering the possibility of pre-emptive strikes and redeployment of US strategic assets including nuclear bombers and submarines to the Korean Peninsula. These statements and threats have culminated in the largest US-ROK joint military exercises in recent years and a series of trilateral military drills involving Japan as an ally.
While these measures were incorporated as an attempt to amplify the United States’ presence in the region and bolster the security of its allies, they have seemingly made the situation worse. Since the start of the military exercises, North Korea has significantly increased its missile tests, seriously jeopardising the security and stability in the region. Another objective of these policies is to pressurise North Korea into entering negotiations on denuclearisation, which has also backfired as Pyongyang has continued on the path of nuclear proliferation, steadily increasing its nuclear capabilities and indicating towards the possibility of a nuclear test in the coming months.
Dismantling the ‘Obsession’
Peace and stability in the Northeast Asian region heavily depends on the establishment of a peaceful order on the Korean Peninsula. A nuclear test has the capability of severely altering the power structure that can lead to further escalation of hostilities in the region. Hence, denuclearisation or a cessation to North Korea’s rapidly growing nuclear proliferation programme is of utmost priority. However, with the recent events and current hostile policy measures, denuclearisation remains a distant reality. Achievement of such a difficult task demands certain policy shifts in dealing with this nuclear conundrum. For a start, the international community must recognise that North Korea’s aggressive nuclear posturing is not just an obsession with weapons of mass destruction but rather is deeply rooted in the country’s threat perceptions and security concerns. North Korea turned towards nuclear weapons at a time when its survival interests were threatened and has ever since maintained it as a credible deterrent against any threat to its sovereignty and existence. While nuclear weapons have become intrinsic to its nature, they serve the very specific purpose of ensuring survival in a highly hostile order. The reconciliatory policies pursued under the administrations of former South Korean Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Moon Jae-in have shown that North Korea can be brought to the negotiations table and a possible agreement on denuclearisation can be made if Pyongyang’s threat perceptions can be conclusively addressed and resolved. However, negotiations cannot go ahead with military drills and retaliatory policies. The failed negotiations of the past are a testament that dialogue pursued amidst lack of cooperation and trust cannot lead to concrete agreements. The international community has so far prioritised pressuring North Korea into surrendering its nuclear weapons to no avail. While the scarcely backed reconciliatory approach under Kim Dae-jung and Moon Jae-in administrations has been outrightly criticised as a failed strategy, the retaliatory policies that have been a feature of US and ROK’s North Korea strategy for decades are still maintained under various administrations to this day. The international community must recognise the failure of these retaliatory policies and should take the initiative to pursue dialogue and cooperation as a possible way out of the escalating conflict brewing on the Korean Peninsula.
Russia-Ukraine Conflict and the Chinese Viewpoint
On the occasion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Uzbekistan, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Chinese Communist Party General Secretary and People’s Republic of China President Xi Jin Ping, who presented a different view of the Russian occupation of Ukraine than that of the Chinese government. During their last face-to-face encounter in February, Xi and Putin vowed to work together without boundaries, providing each other with unwavering political and diplomatic support. There are, however, evident boundaries to their “no limits” collaboration at the present moment, with China, as the more powerful partner, establishing such limits. China has maintained a neutral stance during the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. A meeting between Xi Jin Ping and Vladimir Putin at the SCO Summit showed that Xi sent a clear message that China is not interested in a high-intensity, long-term war. Instead, Xi urged Putin to “assume the role of great powers” and play an anchoring role to bring solidity to the international system. China isn’t interested in a protracted conflict because of the damage it may do to the country’s economy, prestige, and international standing. China is the European Union’s (EU) largest trading partner and an excellent location for EU businesses to set up shops and expand operations.
During 2021, European firms spent over $5.1 billion in the country, making Europe the third biggest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in China. According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, bilateral commerce between China and the EU reached $420.6 billion in the first six months of 2022. It’s impossible to deny the significance of China’s growing economic ties to the West, notably the United States and the European Union. China and the European Union are not on good terms, but EU Chamber of Commerce in China president Wuttke has stressed that they must “rely on each other” nevertheless. Commentators on European and Chinese politics and economies have mostly repeated one another’s arguments. China’s political and economic interest in Ukraine has reached new heights as the country has become a major investment ground for the Asian giant. One-tenth of Ukraine’s arable land has been purchased by the country, which is significant since Ukraine is China’s primary source of maize. Kyiv has been a very important ally to China’s Belt and Road plan. Therefore, China least anticipates a war-torn Ukraine and counter-China policies from Europe or the West.
According to data compiled by the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC) for August 2022, China bought products worth $42.9 million and exported goods worth $185 million to Ukraine. The value of exports has decreased from $1.11 billion in August 2021 to only $185 million in the current month. Over the course of this year, China has dominated the $13.3 million telephone export market in Ukraine. In addition, tobacco products, tyres, and automobiles are among the many items that are sent to Ukraine. However, the export of semiconductor devices and iron pipes from Ukraine and the import of soybean oil have been hit hard. This huge drop in trade value is undeniably a burden for China, especially at a time when the oil price has risen internationally and technological innovation is a requirement, but it can be simply attributed to the protracted dispute and China’s balanced political and diplomatic stance. As it turns out, ties between China and Russia are somewhat strange. Evidence in this regard is Xi’s “cool warning” to Putin.
The relationship between China and Russia is tense on the political and diplomatic fronts, largely as a result of Russia’s military action in Ukraine. Many in the American media and commentary have claimed that China was aware of the action in advance, a claim that China has categorically refuted. China has been very consistent in its criticism of NATO’s expansion into the territories that prompted Russia to take the dramatic measure of retaliating militarily. Furthermore, as a separate instrument for American expansionism, NATO is seen by China as a threat to its geostrategic goals. China worries that its ideological and historical ties to Russia would hurt its international standing and slow the country’s economic growth, which is heavily reliant on exports to the United States and the European Union. China has watched Russia’s aggressive moves against Ukraine intently from the beginning. The reaction of the international community, and the United States in particular, to Russian “expansionism,” was also carefully monitored. That’s because China plans to finally seize complete control of Taiwan, and this is the first, decisive step toward that goal. Taiwan, located among the “first island chain,” is surrounded by militarily important United States territory while being located a hundred miles away. Therefore, even a little move toward conquering Taiwan may immediately endanger American bases in areas like Hawaii and Guam.
China’s diplomats are playing it safe in the Russia-Ukraine conflict not only to avoid getting involved, but also to see how the United States and the West react to the crisis, which will give them valuable insight into how they should deploy their own diplomatic and power-political resources in the future. China is worried about the West’s reaction to a more assertive expansion of Chinese influence. Therefore, it is imperative that the country invest in its own electricity infrastructure, including its technology, human resources, and economy. China hopes to use the continuing turmoil between Russia and Ukraine to its advantage by playing the “partnership card” and demanding massive price reductions on imports, particularly energy. However, under these circumstances, China would strongly oppose any Western attempts to put economic penalties on the country. To protect its geopolitical aspirations, for which the Beijing-Moscow friendship is essential, China would not want to hinder the commercial ecosystem with the United States and the European Union (EU) nations, but it also would not cave to their will.
Impeachment Imminent for Yoon Suk-Yeol in 2023?
South Korea’s home affairs have been nothing short of a riveting drama series unfolding in real time. While the previous season starring Moon Jae-in was about a dragon slayer turned a dragon but with more heads, the current season follows the story of an ex-Prosecutor General who, having made it to the top political office, is trying to whip things into order while displaying next to no political skills and despite the need to toe the line of conservative rhetoric.
Who is Yoon Suk-yeol and what he has accomplished over his six months in power
Those who see Yoon as a typical member of the conservative camp need to check his earlier record, when he took part in student protests or famously led the investigation into the 2012 presidential elections scandal involving “political trolls”, national security agencies orchestrating an online smear campaign against the Democratic Party candidate. Although the investigation was eventually dropped, Yoon’s name surfaced yet again, when the government was looking for an investigator to probe corruption allegations against Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak—and it was Yoon who was credited with unearthing the necessary evidence to back Park’s indictment.
Following this success, Yoon was appointed Prosecutor General by Moon Jae-in, who apparently expected him to rubber stamp jail convictions as instructed. The new prosecutor, however, demonstrated integrity and homed in on corruption among the President’s entourage. Following a protracted bureaucratic tug-of-war between the Ministry of Justice and the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office (SPO) and an attempt to suspend him from office, Yoon ended up in politics and joined the conservative People Power Party (PPP) for lack of any third political force in South Korea.
Yoon’s political career with the PPP did not get off to a smooth start. He ran afoul of both classic right-wing and right-center conservatives, whose Lee Jun-seok was Chairman of the Party. During the election campaign, however, Yoon succeeded in building his own faction with his old buddies and former prosecution officers.
Nevertheless, Yoon won the presidential race by a meagre 0.73%, the tiniest margin in South Korea’s electoral history, whereas Lee Jae-myung, his principal contender and a former Mayor of Seongnam and Governor of Gyeonggi-do Province, fetched more votes than Moon Jae-in five years before.
Although this analysis does not aim to provide a comprehensive overview of Yoon Suk-yeol’s first six months in power, it is worth noting that he got down to his presidential business with a good deal of zest that has met with no lesser resistance.
Yoon opened his presidency with a few major eye-catching moves to demonstrate his commitment to serious change. In his first most sweeping gesture, Yoon relocated his presidential office from the Blue House to the former Ministry of Defense building, emphasizing his resolve to end the “imperial presidency”. Then, the new president has avoided any overt acts of political vengeance and called for cooperation across ideological and party divides. A committee has been set up with a mandate to promote national unity in politics, economy, culture, and other areas.
Yoon has also continued the policy of commemorating the victims of the military dictatorship, seeking to hijack the Democrats’ agenda and taking part in such events as the commemoration ceremony for the victims of the Gwangju Uprising in 1980.
Yoon’s Cabinet and Administration are teaming with ex-Democrats, including the Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, though most public officers at the top have a history of serving under Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, a fact that left its mark on their political views. And yet Yoon was the first to meet with the Russian ambassador ahead of his Democratic opponent.
Yoon has reorganized his Presidential Office, abolishing, rather radically, the office of the Senior Presidential Secretary for Civil Affairs previously regarded as the master lever for exercising informal influence over and forcing president’s will on security agencies and the civil society. Further plans envisage support in overhauling 350 government agencies to improve their productivity and efficiency. Then, there is a big focus on anti-corruption efforts which, as the South Korean tradition goes, pursue a dual purpose of fighting corruption and ousting political opponents from positions of power. On yet another line of resolute action, the government has launched a crackdown on drug trafficking.
Significant changes have been made to the economic policy. While the previous administration relied on rising personal incomes to drive economic growth, Yoon Suk-yeol and his government prioritize the private sector. Another notable change was the scrapping of the nuclear phase-out policy and reinstatement of the “nuclear ecosystem”.
To tackle the growing missile and nuclear threat from North Korea, the new Administration came up with an “extended deterrent” policy based on the alliance between Seoul and Washington as well as the cooperation between South Korea, the United States and Japan. But the “bold initiative”, which is in fact a repackaged version of proposals harking back to the times of Lee Myung-bak (denuclearization in exchange for economic aid), was rejected while the military cooperation with the U.S. renewed on the same historical scale was responsible for the long-drawn-out bout of escalation between the Koreas and “mounting threats”.
In spite of the declarations of strategic alliance with the United States, Seoul participates in economic formats avoiding any steps, or is reluctant to get involved in any projects, that could be damaging to its relations with China or Russia. Quite tellingly, Yoon cold-shouldered Nancy Pelosi refusing to get back from his vacation to meet the U.S. House Speaker in person during her tour of Asia and confining his welcome to a mere phone conversion.
The energetic efforts of the new President have encountered a whole raft of barriers. The first is a deeply divided society. The election defeat with the narrowest margin in South Korea’s electoral history was dismissed by the Democrats as purely accidental and even their fiasco at the local elections in June 2022 (where they secured only five out of seventeen provincial governor seats and mayor seats in directly-controlled cities) has not done much to wake them up to reality.
Moreover, since Moon Jae-in had left politics, the Democratic Party chair was taken by Lee Jae-myung, Yoon’s presidential rival with a controversial reputation of a populist who appears more left-wing in his pledges than Moon himself.
Adding to the contention is the Democrats’ overwhelming majority in the National Assembly. The opposition Democratic Party of Korea holds 169 out of 300 seats in the National Assembly, while the ruling People’s Power Party has 114. Thus, the Democrats are in good position to torpedo most of Yoon’s initiatives or reject his nominations to government offices (appointing someone without parliamentary consent is frowned upon as bad political manners). The legislating process can be simply paralyzed as the parties refuse to budge and compromise. This ongoing impasse is set to last till the next parliamentary elections in spring 2024.
The ruling party is struggling to stand united as Yoon’s supporters and conservatives teamed up against Lee Jun-seok entangled in a corruption scandal with bribes that he had received in kind as sexual services. The Ethics Committee suspended Lee’s party membership for eighteen months, but he refused to surrender his chairmanship of the party resorting to relentless litigation to overrule his opponents’ resolutions. After a long fight, Lee was finally dethroned—but he and his followers are still there to stay.
The second challenge lies in the current economic troubles, for which Yoon as President bears at least symbolic responsibility. South Korea’s economy is facing tough times with steeply rising inflation, the weak won versus the U.S. dollar, and steep interest rate hikes. Forecasts point to the growing risks of market volatility and a global recession driven by a dramatic rise in the U.S. Federal Reserve funds rate, Chinese economy slowdown and the fallout from the protracted conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The growing external economic uncertainty increases the risks of domestic stagflation and fast-paced high inflation resulting from skyrocketing energy and commodity prices as well as from persistent disruptions in the global supply chains. Some economists believe that South Korea may find itself in a situation similar to the 2008 economic crisis, at the very least. But since most of the above comes as legacy problems inherited from the previous Administration, Yoon’s critics are pointing their accusatory fingers elsewhere.
Take, for example, his controversial government appointments. where Yoon has been criticized on three counts. The first line of attack had to do with the lack of inclusivity and gender equality as many of his nominees to top positions are those whom he has long known personally, mostly men in their fifties and fellow graduates of the Seoul National University. The second fault-finding narrative talks about a “Republic of Prosecutors”, since Yoon’s team includes, for obvious reasons, quite a few people with the SPO background, including the Minister of Justice, Minister of Unification and President’s Chief of Staff. The third is concerned with specific scandals ranging from real cases of corruption to questionable allegations way back in the past. Although most rows have been settled by self-withdrawals or resignations, they leave behind a sense of frustrated expectations laced with a foul aftertaste.
On top of it, the new Administration has ignored their pledge “not to do things the way Moon did” and started using some of the previous President’s methods such as forcing some of Moon-appointed officials from their posts and pressing them to resign for the sake of maintaining stability in the current government.
From the Conservatives’ perspective Yoon has let down his people because he failed to deliver on his pledge of introducing innovation and change in line with his vision of the future. In their opinion, he should have used this decisive period of his presidency to propose a plan and lay down the groundwork for effective government administration, but has made no progress on that front. The fact that some of his plans have been blocked by the Democrats does not count any more. In the eyes of the opposition, Yoon is building a dictatorship while showing a graphic example of total incompetence.
The third problem is Yoon’s media presence. On the one hand, Yoon is not a professional politician, on the other, he almost never leaves the spotlight and talks to the media every day. Given that the right-wing outlets are controlled by his political adversaries they criticize Yoon with equal regularity. His public gaffes and ambiguous statements are instantly made public and enhanced with fitting commentaries.
The last big media scandal flared up during Yoon’s visit to New York in September 2022 when Yoon was caught cursing on a live microphone after exiting from a disappointing meeting with Joe Biden. His outburst was recorded and aired later on the pro-democratic MBC network, this time complete with very specific subtitles in spite of not very distinct sound. To be sure, when Yoon banned MBC from joining the media pool for his next international visit this sparked accusations that he was trying to stifle the freedom of speech.
All of the above have been steadily eroding Yoon’s approval rating from 52% when he took office down to a little more than 30% on September 10th, 2022, which is extremely poor performance for a president in the early months of his term. And the numbers are still oscillating around this level with only 30.1% of those surveyed on November 10th responding that they are satisfied with Yoon Suk-yeol as their President and 64.9% disapproving of the way he handles the top job.
“War with the Democrats”
Under the circumstances, both parties use the word “war” to describe their current stand-off. There are several reasons for that. First, every party that has fought its way to power sweeps clean the conquered ground under the pretext of combatting corruption. Second, political vengeance and settling old scores are embedded in the political culture of South Korea. Most Conservatives, apparently in no mood to break the tradition of locking up the ex-President, are eager to have their reckoning for the jailing of Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak. Third, Yoon Suk-yeol is clearly resolved to see through the investigations which had eventually brought him to swap his Prosecutor’s Office for the President’s one.
For now, public prosecutors have their sights trained on the ex-President Moon Jae-in and the current Democratic Party Leader Lee Jae-myung. The political emergency helped Lee to rally the support of the party that was all the more unanimous since his foremost rivals either had left politics or cut less charismatic and recognizable figures. With all that, some openly said that Lee Jae-myung had been fighting not for the party chair or a parliament seat, but for his own safety and being able to recast the allegations against him as revenge for his political views.
The accusations against Moon Jae-in are related to two incidents. The first one was the repatriation of North Korean defectors in 2019, when two fishermen had murdered 16 of their comrades before they “chose freedom” and headed South, trying to escape the North Korean justice. The Moon’s government deported them, kicking and screaming, back home. The ethical reasons were good enough, but under the Constitution of South Korea all North Korean defectors are deemed to be citizens of South Korea and shall not be repatriated. Besides, there was no proper investigation, and the Conservatives might claim that the murder had not been proved and therefore Moon just sacrificed the innocent for the sake of strengthening ties with the North.
The second incident was the death of a fisheries official, Lee Dae-jun, who, according to official reports, was shot by North Korean troops in the waters of North Korea in 2020. However doubtful is the official account of the events. it has surfaced that in spite of insufficient evidence Lee was portrayed not as a victim but as someone who had tried to cross over to the North fleeing gambling debts and domestic troubles. Aggravating the picture, the President knew for a fact that a citizen of the Republic was in North Korean waters but failed to take any action to rescue him. This highlights Moon as a politician who prioritizes relations with the North over human lives as well as reminds everyone about Park Geun-hye who had allegedly done nothing to save the high school kids on the sinking Sewol ferry. Though indeed Park’s government had neither capability nor any chance to rescue them. While the ex-President refuses to cooperate with the investigators, the Conservative party members keep reminding him about his own criticism of Park Geun-hye for similar behavior.
The accusations against Lee Jae-myung are more mundane. They have been trailing him since his gubernatorial years in the city of Seongnam and boil down to astronomical profits pocketed by his crony developers in the construction business at a huge cost to the municipal budget. Lee also appears to have accepted bribes from businessmen disguised as contributions to a football club under his patronage in exchange for various preferences. Although the inquiry has led to some arrests already, there is no direct evidence against Lee Jae-myung because all the four key witnesses against him had died—in a strange coincidence of two proven suicides and two apparently natural deaths—one or two days before their testimonies were due in court. As for his past abuses, Lee has so far been charged only with violating the Elections Act as he had denied the acquaintance of certain individuals involved in the scandals, a claim which later was found to be false.
In 2022, however the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office discovered that all the developers’ ill-earned gains had been hoarded in a hush fund that was used to bankroll Lee Jae-myung’s presidential campaign. The SPO has already detained a number of people in his inner circle.
Lee’s wife too is under investigation on charges of using a corporate credit card of the Gyeonggi-do Province administration to pay her personal expenses for shopping and restaurants at the time when her husband was governing the province in 2018–2021. She is also suspected in making public servants run her personal errands.
The Democrats deny all accusations, Lee Jae-myung proudly ignores any court summons, and his party puts a lot of pressure on the government to stall the investigation. The evidence of Lee Jae-myung’s corrupt behavior appears to have more substance than the “facts” against Park Geun-hye if only because this time we know how the bribe-givers’ money was spent. It would be fair to remember that Moon Jae-in also attempted to put Lee Jae-myung behind bars because Lee was his foremost contender within the party.
What bear much importance here is that the Democratic camp would be utterly discredited, as well as the left without a strong leadership, should these charges turn to convictions. First, because other Democratic leaders either have taken a time-out from politics or have been compromised. Second, when a public idol and Democratic politician who has promised to fight corruption is caught red-handed himself, this inflicts irreparable damage on the party’s reputation. In this context, the Democrats would probably stoop to any kind of ruse to stop the prosecutors’ onslaught. Considering the zeal with which their opponents in power got cracking on those investigations, the Democrats’ best bet to forestall the disaster would be to bring about a change of power by impeaching Yoon Suk-yeol.
So, the political gasoline has been spilt and the question is what unfortunate event will strike the incendiary match. It could be a scandal associated with Yoon or his close allies (this is yet unlikely as both the President and his entourage has steered clear of corruption) or a national tragedy, for which the President would be held fully responsible. For Park Geun-hye, the debacle was triggered by the sinking of the Sewol ferry that killed 300 people. Although the failed rescue operation was the fault of the local authorities and it was not possible for the central government to make any difference, the opposition was swift and smart to pin the blame on Park and make it stick. However groundless the claims were that Moon Jae-in and his cohorts had faked the news, the media campaign run by the Democrats still helped to undermine Park’s approval rating and shape the public image of the ex-President that played its role in the events that followed.
Given the above, there are two questions that need to be answered. Could the Seoul Halloween tragedy (a crowd crush in the district of Itaewon on October 29th, 2022 that left 158 people killed and about as many wounded) become the equivalent of the Sewol sinking for Yoon Suk-yeol, and would the Democrats try and set Yoon Suk-yeol up for impeachment over the late 2022–2023?
The Halloween tragedy and potential impeachment
This may remind the Russian readers of a similar tragedy in Minsk (Republic of Belarus) in 1999 near the Nemiga metro station where several thousand people got crammed into a narrow sloping alley, so when those coming down first slipped and fell the crowd pushed forward over their heads and the ensuing panic only added to the casualty count. Could the Halloween disaster have been prevented? On the one hand, the festivities were not a municipality event where police should always be deployed to maintain order, but an informal celebration and the first big public event after years of Covid restrictions that drew large crowds of Halloween party-goers who were left without proper official oversight as there was no specific organizer. On the other hand, the authorities failed to take measures and disperse the crowd in good time in spite of some warning calls about the risk of a crowd surge. It seems that the local police were wary of having to interfere with the street party and spoil the fun for the revelers.
A special police department is conducting a probe to understand what went wrong, but the resentment is bitter and already widespread with surveys showing that about 70% of those asked are unhappy about the way their government has been dealing with the consequences of the tragedy. The common sentiment is that punishment ought to be served to some of the high-profile government figures that usually bear merely symbolic responsibility rather than the rank-and-file officials who were directly responsible and failed to prevent the crush or promptly pass information about the imminent danger.
The Democrats, in their turn, have been trying to exploit the tragedy as a symbol of government helplessness and incompetence, demanding a parliamentary inquiry and an independent special prosecutor, and calling for the resignation of the Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, Minister of Public Administration and Security Lee Sang-min, and Commissioner General of the Korean National Police Agency Yoon Hee-keun. To some extent this explains why the two latter officials have no intent of resigning right away on their own and thus acknowledging their share of responsibility but might do so after they have closed the case and sorted out the consequences.
Anyway, Yoon immediately declared a period of national mourning, during which he more than once visited the memorial altar, met with religious leaders and was generally demonstrating the government’s commitment to properly investigate the tragedy and punish those responsible. This has taken the wind out of the Democrats’ sails making it hard to blame Yoon for ignoring the people’s bereavement as effortlessly as they did it with Park Geun-hye. On a different tack, the Democrats have been trying to spread the word that the tragedy happened because all the local police were busy guarding the President whose residence is not far from the scene of the stampede. To set things straight, this is not true because President’s security is provided by other troops, and as for police availability, part of the force did have to be deployed elsewhere at two political rallies held by the Democrats and the Conservatives at the same time as the Halloween festivities.
It is problematic to poke any other faults since Yoon has been running the country for a little over six months and has not had time to make any consequential decisions that could supply political ammunition against him. Blaming Yoon for the economic storm is risky as this could lead to questions about who had sowed the wind in the first place.
Technically, however, there is little to stop the Democrats from initiating the impeachment proceedings that could be announced if voted for by 200 out of 300 Members of Parliament and subsequently endorsed by the Constitutional Court. The Democrats already have 169 votes that could be beefed up to 200 by enlisting allies from other left-wing parties and Yoon’s enemies among the Conservatives like Lee Jun-seok’s faction. They have enough of their appointees in the Constitutional Court, and, as the Candlelight Vigil showed, public protests can be as effective as backdoor influence in terms of putting pressure on a public institution.
Lurking as yet another potential factor in the fray are the United States that may choose to assist in toppling President Yoon to replace him with a classic right-winger, given that the Democrats are as pro-American as the Conservatives anyway. If the United States are gearing up for a global confrontation, Washington would be better off with an amenable rather than pragmatic head of South Korean state.
Nonetheless, Yoon still commands a fairly strong level of confidence and support, and, though there is no shortage of warts and all, his story is not that of someone who, having climbed to the top wishing to do justice and get rid of the usual politicking government types, degenerated into just another one of them as it had precipitously happened to Moon. The accusations against the Democrats themselves are quite grave and could also be leveraged to play on the people’s emotions. Especially, if their damaging power is boosted with the same rhetorical techniques that Moon and his supporters employed during the Candlelight Demonstrations. In addition, both sides competing for presidency “enjoy” fairly high disapproval ratings, and between the two unsavory reputations people tend to opt for the status quo.
Finally, the lasting effect of the previous presidential impeachment may, too, come to weigh in on the outcome because most of the allegations that had been bandied about by the media for five years and been driving angry protesters out into the streets were never proven in court. Furthermore, only the deleted messages in secret Telegram chats saved the Democrats from accusations that all those heart-rending rumors had been fake news fed in by Moon’s coterie via loyal top bloggers. While the realization that the masses had been already duped once might not necessarily hit the public domain, it may as well immunize the minds against future manipulation, and the Democrats would no longer be able to mechanically reuse their 2016 strategy.
Therefore, the Democrats are still quite likely to try and impeach the President, but an assessment of their chances of ultimate success would do better to look back for references well beyond 2016 and consider the events of 2004 when Roh Moo-hyun was impeached over his backing of a newly established political party consisting of his supporters, which was against the Constitution and put him on the wrong side of both the Conservatives and the “old-school” Democrats. The Assembly suspended his executive powers, but Roh Moo-hyun turned the tables so that in the eyes of the broader public his impeachment looked as if the old elite had been trying to stop the reforms. Then, Roh Moo-hyun’s party won the elections that were held in the interval between the impeachment vote and the pending ruling of the Constitutional Court and he was reinstated as President.
Be it as it may, the internal political turbulence in South Korea is clearly going to pack this drama season with a good deal of thrilling action and insightful lessons.
 His personal opinion is that there is no absolute certainty about whether the victim shot by North Korean troops and the missing official are one and the same person.
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