The Korean Peninsula in 2016

The end of the year had some of the most interesting stories of the year coming from the Korean peninsula.  First, in November, Kim Jung-un stated that North Korea possessed a hydrogen bomb.  Well he more alluded to the possibility, but still the remark was an important one and one that should not be overlooked.  Then, in December, reports started to surface saying that North Korea was constructing a new tunnel at the Punggye-ri location, where the country has conducted its three previous tests.  A follow up report by 38 North – which is where I first found out about this story – showed that there has been continued construction on the tunnel throughout December.  In mid December, Kim Jung-us’s state band – Monrangbong Band – was dispatched to China to perform.  China, however, apurptly canceled the groups schedule, forcing them to return back to North Korea without performing.  This was the second time China had snubbed North Korea, showing tension in the relationship between the two nations.  Also, Kim Yang-gon, the official in charge of inter-Korean relations in North Korea died in a car accident.  There is speculation that the accident was planned, but if the accident was planned or not, the death of Kim Yang-gon symbolizes a shift in inter-Korean relations, hopefully for the better.  (Present on Kim’s funeral committee is Choe Ryong-hae, who was purged earlier in the year, but is now coming back into public focus.)  Finally, in December, South Korea and Japan reached a landmark deal for the settlement of the “comfort women” issue.  The deal has been praised by outsiders and politicians as a way for the two nations to reconcile there differences and move forward as allies.  The surviving victims and China, however, have been adamant about their disapproval for the deal.  As you can see, the end of the year brought with it several stories.  I apologize for the lack of South Korea in the wrap up, I will try better next time.

What does this mean going forward for the two Koreas.  Well, the first is that both will be having to deal with issues relating to foreign policy.  North Korea will have to attempt to better its alliance with China and improve relations with South Korea in order to maintain the current status quo.  The most important of those two goals will be maintaining a good relationship with China, so that North Korea can continue to receive aid and a backing on the international political stage.  For South Korea, the most important foreign policy issue will also be a domestic issue.  South Korea’s relationship with Japan has the potential to blossom into a positive advantage for both countries.  The Korean government, however, has a difficult task on the home front, getting people to accept the deal with Japan.  While difficult, the issue that South Korea is facing is that the deal will settle the issue once and for all, instead of making it an important stepping stone in improving relations.  Also, the deal may drive China closer to North Korea, as the Chinese will want to see some sort of deal for the Chinese women that were victimized by the Japanese brothels.

Domestic challenges will exist throughout the year as well.  In North Korea Kim will have to maintain his iron grip on power, through any means possible.  With more and more people showing interest in South Korean dramas and with more outside information coming into the country, this will be a difficult task for Kim.  (I would like to say I do not enjoy Kim being in power, but at the moment, the world is not prepared for a North Korean collapse.  Also, I am trying to highlight domestic issues from their standpoint, not from the opinion of the author.)  This is a yearly concern for North Korea, but more so now in the information age.

South Korea will face a huge domestic issue.  Park has provided little to the people, in the form of domestic policy, over the last two years.  Major protests have shown the South Korean dislike in the way she has handled the domestic policy realm, with the most recent protests coming after the announcement that South Korea will move to state authored history textbooks.  Park has also met serious backlash from the agreement with Japan, which only added fuel to the fire.  Park Geun-hae’s biggest challenge, domestically, in 2016 will be showing that her government is serving the needs of the people, not her own wants.  Though Park will be out of office in 2018, with an election happening in 2017, she must look to give the people faith in the conservative party.  The people will show just how much faith they have in the conservative party, post Park, in 2017.  This new election may see the rise of a second Roo Mu-hyun or Kim Dae-jung, but honestly, it is way too early for predictions, so I will save my predictions for my post in a year or so.

The Korean peninsula in 2016 is wrought with challenges.  Domestically, North and South Korea need to solidify their rule.  Kim Jung-un must look to control the influx of information, as well as start showing more authority throughout North Korea.  Park Geun-hae must recover from two domestic failures and show that she is prepared to provide for her population, not for herself in South Korea.  Internationally, North Korea needs to reconcile with China and improve relations with there neighbor.  South Korea is facing an uphill battle with Japan and must seek a future plan for Seoul-Toyko relations after the agreement.  Finally, the two Koreas must look to improve inter-Korean relations for 2016.  This year will be an interesting year on the peninsula, hopefully for the better.