Summit Stories: An Analysis of the June 12 US-DPRK Summit

President Donald J. Trump and Kim Jung-un sat face to face in an epochal summit on June 12, 2018, on Sentosa Island in Singapore. The two men showed obvious rapport as they talked, signed a joint statement, and even partook in some jovial unscripted moments between meetings.

Though they got along, the summit was not the end-all moment that Trump and his administration had wished for. However, it may not the statement which Trump signed , but the relationship he cultivated with Kim Jung-un that may lead to further progress on the peninsula.

The Joint Statement

The most tangible outcome of the Trump-Kim summit was the Joint Statement signed by the two leaders. Though Trump lauded the outcome of the summit, the wording and commitments outlined in the joint statement simply do not advance the denuclearization of North Korea.

The Joint Statement consisted of a few major points. Trump agreed to provide security guarantees while Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” (Joint Statement)[1]. The statement also laid out four main commitments as well, including reaffirmation of the Panmunjom Declaration, establishment of relations between America and North Korea, continuing efforts to build a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula, and the repatriation of American remains from the Korean War.[2] Trump and Kim closed by agreeing to continuing diplomatic reaches in attempting to solve the nuclear issue (Joint Statement).

Trump, following the summit, has been a staunch defender of the statement. After returning stateside, Trump tweeted that there was no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea (Twitter). Even a week after signing the statement, Trump continued to praise it, insisting that the media was downplaying the positive aspects of the agreement because he signed it (Twitter; USA Today). The president has constantly pointed to the provision calling for the repatriation of American remains from the Korean War as an example of the “major concessions” he gained from North Korea at the summit.

While Trump’s laudatory remarks are not necessarily out of the ordinary for a president who is defending his most important foreign policy venture of his tenure, the statement itself has drawn much criticism from the expert community. Jenny Town, managing editor of 38North, said the statement had even less detail than previous agreements between North Korea and the United States. Scott Snyder, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the statement, and the summit itself, did nothing to address the missile development, biological and chemical weapons, as well as the human rights situation in North Korea (PBS). Andrei Lankov said the agreement had zero practical value and that “North Korea will feel emboldened while the United States got nothing” (Financial Times). Finally, Stephen Haggard argued that the statement will be detrimental to American short- and long-term interests in the region, writing “we are no farther along after the summit than we were before it,” in reference to lacking detail about the future in the statement (NKNews).

The biggest failure of the statement is the lack of concrete measures and steps for moving forward on the denuclearization of North Korea. Heading into Singapore, Trump drew a tough line on ensuring the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” (CVID) of North Korea at the summit. The statement, however, makes no reference to CVID. Trump and Kim also agreed to promote peace and continue diplomacy, but left the details out here as well. As Benjamin Habib wrote in The Conversation, “the omission of CVID from the joint statement is confirmation that North Korea under Kim Jung-un is never going to willingly denuclearize,” and the statement is most revealing in its omissions (The Conversation).

While it is easy to lambast the statement for lacking key structural support for the continued push to denuclearize North Korea, the statement represents a key historical victory. It showcases the ability of Pyongyang and Washington to hear and negotiate on critical security concerns and even reach an agreement on those issues. Also, the statement has ushered in a calm over the peninsula as North Korea has entered a long moratorium of missile and nuclear testing–though no testing does not mean they haven’t been working and advancing their nuclear program in other ways. Though vague and lacking, the statement will provide an essential grounding for future negotiations with North Korea moving forward.

Frenemies: Kim & Trump’s Relationship

(Image: Trump and Kim as they walk over to check out “The Beast.” Source: AP News)

Another key aspect of the summit was the ability for Kim Jung-un and Donald Trump to build rapport with each other. Either the summit would be confrontational and the world would slip right back into a fear of possible war or the two leaders would be able to cultivate a decent relationship which could pave the way for future negotiations. Thankfully, the latter occurred.

Trump and Kim shared some very interesting, unscripted moments together in front of the cameras. The two leaders shared smiles throughout the event, and both walked a slightly confident swagger following the closed door meeting (TIME). Possibly the most intriguing moment occurred when Trump showed off “The Beast”–the presidential limo–to the North Korean leader (Fox News). The two appeared friendly during the summit, and that likely will assist in continuing negotiations in the future; it is easier to negotiate with someone if you find something in common, even if they are your enemy.

Trump even had some very kind words to say about Kim following their closed sessions during the summit. The President described the relationship between them as a very special bond. At one point, Trump even attempted humor, joking about getting a perfect picture in which the leaders look thin (NY Times). Trump’s words, body language, and even overall demeanor during these unscripted moments offered the possibility to gauge the summit. They confirmed that the two leaders got along and were able to discuss key issues in a mild manner under tense pressure.

Conclusion

It has been two weeks since the summit and already we have seen some advancement on both sides of the 38th parallel. President Trump has made good on his security promise by pulling the plug on the joint military drills (Yonhap). North Korea has started to remove its anti-American propaganda from shops and other locations across the country (NKNews).

Both President Trump and Kim Jung-un won something in this summit. Trump’s biggest takeaway was political. He can present the summit as successful use of diplomacy during his first term. Trump also got Kim to cease missile and nuclear testing for an elongated period of time in 2018–North Korea has yet to test a missile or nuke as it attempts diplomatic outreach to many nations. Kim won political legitimacy. Moreover, he gained legitimacy as a nuclear weapons state. Though his most important goal, the rest of the world will not confer the same legitimacy on Kim, and most likely will refuse to acknowledge his new found legitimacy if Pyongyang refuses to act as a responsible power in the world. The outcomes of the summit are tricky to parse, as diplomacy is complex.

Assigning a winner and loser of the summit is a paltry practice. Kim Jung-un won the legitimacy he pursued for years; even if the summit had no tangible outcomes, Kim still would have gained such legitimacy. He also gained, in writing, security guarantees from a sitting U.S. president. Trump gained a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests which backed the peninsula away from the brink of war. Trump’s biggest loss is legitimizing North Korea while not pushing for concrete steps toward denuclearization. Legitimizing Kim’s nuclear weapons also presents a challenge for Kim: he must now act as a responsible nuclear power to continue to posses and grow his legitimacy.

Future negotiations with North Korea surrounding the nuclear issue will shift as Kim will see himself as a bona-fide nuclear power, threatening enough for the United States president to meet with him, This is not to say that future talks will be for naught. As with this summit, major talks tend to correspond with lulls in testing, and provide some short-term room for progress to be made. Now, all we have to do is tactically use the opening created by the summit and push for concrete progress.

Notes

[1] The “Joint Statement of President Donald J. Trump of the United States of America and Chairman Kim Jung-un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea at the Singapore Summit” will be referenced as the “Joint Statement” in this post for brevity.

[2] For a copy of the Panmunjom Declaration, see “Full text of Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula” in The Straights Times.

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Sign Time

Trump and Kim have emerged from their working lunch and now we are off to a signing. (I am watching the summit on CNN.)

Trump, passing reporters, said the meeting has been going well, possibly better than anyone could’ve expected. While Trump’s words may be over hyped, they do hint at the possibility of something similar to a joint communique or declaration to come. The two did go to separate areas after Trump mentioned the signing.

So far Kim and Trump appear to be having cordial time together. They walk together, shake hands, and Trump even showed off his presidential Cadillac. The two appear to have built a good rapport with each other.

We are awaiting the end of the summit and this signing. As for myself, I’m off for tonight so I can get some sleep. I’ll write updates as quickly as I can and provide my full analysis of the summit in the coming days.

What to Watch For as we Head to Lunch

(Image: Trump and Kim shake hands before their bilateral meeting in Singapore. Source: Fox News Twitter)

Kim Jung-un and President Trump have left their one on one and headed to a luncheon where diplomatic and expert staff will join them. The two leaders are continuing their historic summit which has the world watching.

Some things to watch for from the summit as we near the end:

  • Substance and plans: Will there be an unveiling of a plan toward denuclearization?
  • Statements: What will Kim Jung-un say? What about Trump’s words? How will the media–both American and North Korean–use public statements to shape the narrative?
  • Human rights: Was the topic of human rights abuses even mentioned in this meeting? What was said and who said it?
  • The relationship: How do Kim and Trump act together? How are they shaping the image through body language and gestures?
  • Peace Treaty: Was their discussion on a formal treaty to end the Korean War? Were any stipulations in place for the treaty? What frame was the treaty presented? And, finally, was a treaty signed?

These are just a few points to watch in this summit. Hopefully, we’ll have answers to them all in the coming hours.

Creating a Path Toward Denuclearization

It has been a long, unplanned hiatus for this blog, not due the lack of news coming from the peninsula for sure. As we approach meeting time, the world watches both President Donald J. Trump and Chairman Kim Jung-un as they wake up in Singapore, counting down the hours till they meet face to face. As I cannot write something that has not been written before, below is a brief breakdown of a possible path Trump can pursue to set North Korea on a path toward denuclearization.

(Image: Trump and Kim Jung-un. Source: CNN)

A diplomatic uncertainty, full of twists and turns only a Trump White House could produce, has increased the already high stakes of next weeks U.S.-North Korea summit. Topics will mainly focus on the weapons programs in North Korea, with a strong push for “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.” Another key focus will be a formal ending to the Korean War with the possible signing of a peace treaty. Trump, in order to pursue the denuclearization of North Korea, can pursue three goals which will set North Korea on the path toward denuclearization and use the possibility of a formal peace treaty to bring Kim Jung-un into compliance.

First, Trump can pursue the safety of the North Korean nuclear program by pushing for strong updates to current North Korean nuclear testing and production sites. Such updates would ensure that nuclear waste is properly stored, proper measures for interacting with nuclear material are implemented, and ensure that any accident can be contained quickly. Adding such a strict, internationally mandated safety to the North Korean nuclear program ensures any inspections are thorough and provides structure to give the world a better understanding of the program. It also can ensure that the North Korean people themselves are less likely to become the victim in case of a major breakdown at any nuclear site in the country.

Second, Trump must push for enhanced transparency with regards to international reporting on North Korea’s nuclear program. This includes installing a strong structure for and stipulations on North Korea’s own reporting of its nuclear program. As David Sanger and Willam Broad reported in the New York Times, Pyongyang has hidden vast amounts of data on its nuclear program for decades—American intelligence agencies cannot even agree on how many weapons Kim possess. This means any strong transparency measures will also have to include a strong inspection regime to ensure compliance with implemented measures and the accuracy of North Korean reports. Violations or discrepancies within North Korea’s reports must then be investigated and punished appropriately; a stronger understanding of the capabilities of North Korea’s nuclear program greatly enhances the ability to verify any steps taken toward denuclearization.

Finally, Trump should push for the destruction of known nuclear sites such as Yongbyon in order to build upon the North’s actions at Punggye-ri while also greatly reducing North Korea’s capabilities to expand its arsenal. To prevent shallow gestures, international experts need to be able to attend and verify the destruction of such sites, and Pyongyang should face penalties if any site is not irreversibly destroyed. Though there are many unknown nuclear sites in North Korea, destroying the ones already known cripples Kim’s ability to build more weapons. A panel of interested nations—Russia, America, South Korea, North Korea, Japan, and China—should convene to discuss the future of any sites discovered. Rewards should be granted if Pyongyang volunteers site information and follows through on its complete destruction.

A formal peace treaty should not be signed unless Kim Jung-U.N. is willing to commit to all of these steps, ensuring that he is making good on his promise to pursue denuclearization. Providing North Korea with the security assurances that come with a formal treaty without pressing for concrete steps toward denuclearization ensures that Kim is free to cheat on any deal, all while gaining concessions and legitimacy in the domestic and international arenas. Trump also needs to think about the future and ensure that strong measures are ready to be implemented should Pyongyang cheat on the deal. America simply cannot give Kim concessions without gaining concrete steps toward denuclearization.

If Trump can secure all three of these commitments from Kim, he will walk away having accomplished more than previous presidents have on the North Korea issue. However tantalizing, he must avoid giving away security guarantees for grand promises and instead focus on setting North Korea down the road toward denuclearization. With the hype and pressure surrounding the summit, Trump must think in terms of substance while refusing to fall for North Korea’s grand promises of peace and denuclearization that Pyongyang carefully crafts for their benefit.

Corrections: June 11, 2018

Typographical changes to make the post easier to read.

A Leap With Limitations: North Korea’s November 29 Missile Launch

On November 29, North Korea launched a missile from Pyongsong, South Pyongan Province. After flying to an altitude of 2,800 miles, the missile splashed down in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (CNN; USA Today). The test broke a hiatus that lasted over two months, escalating tensions on the peninsula in the months leading up to the Olympic Games in South Korea. Not only was the test a break in the brief respite in testing, it marked a massive improvement in North Korea’s arsenal. Several key questions arise from the test. 1) What capabilities does the new missile add to North Korea’s program? And should we be scared of those new abilities? 2) How does the test alter the way we respond to North Korean provocations? 3) Are we inching closer and closer to a war on the peninsula?

How Does the New Missile Enhance Pyongyang’s Abilities?

The missile tested on November 29 was a Hwangsong-15 type Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, the largest and longest reaching missile in North Korea’s arsenal. David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, estimated that the missile, flown on a more standard trajectory, has an estimated range of 13,000km (8,100 miles)[Union of Concerned Scientists]. Analysts have cautioned, however, that the missile was most likely tested with a reduced payload to exaggerate its overall capabilities. Some estimates place the range of the operational missile, carrying a 500kg payload, to be around 8,300km (38 North).

Despite its range, some other key aspects of the missile differentiate it from the rest of North Korea’s arsenal. Compared to the Hwangsong-14, the ICBM North Korea tested in July, the Hwasong-15 is bigger, has more engines, and features a guidance system which is simpler and more effective than previous variations on other North Korean missiles (38North). Another key aspect of the missile is the Hwasong-15’s BMD defenses. The Hwasong-15 has the capability to carry a wide variety of simple decoys, pieces used to fool interceptors into hitting the wrong target. Several experts agree that the current state of American Ballistic Missile Defense, the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System or GMD, is not capable enough to be relied on in the event that an operational Hwasong-15 is launched against the country (The National Interest). Technologically, the missile not only is a step up for Pyongyang, it showcases that North Korea has mastered a wide variety of technological aspects for their ICBM program, providing them with a stronger ability to strike the United States mainland and get through the web of American missile defense. It’s a scary leap forward indeed.

The Hwasong-15 is the technological leap forward the international community has been fearing for some time. Not only does the missile appear more accurate and reliable than other North Korean missiles, it also has the theoretical ability to carry a nuclear warhead to the United States mainland, even if the operational length of the missile is shorter than test analysis shows. North Korea may now turn its focus to improving the Hwasong-15 as well as shrinking its nuclear weapons to fulfill its penultimate goal: having the ability to strike the United States mainland with a reliable nuclear-tipped ICBM.

Running out of Options: How Do We Respond in the Age of the ICBM?

International reactions to Pyongyang’s test were strong, yet not strong enough to provoke. Marked with shows of strength and tough diplomacy, reactions have centered on one goal: showcasing strong forces and alliances as a method of deterrence. However strong they were, the responses also needed an element of tempered diplomatic maneuvering to avoid exacerbating the situation.

While moving through the typical South Korean bureaucratic channels–Moon Jae-in called an emergency meeting of the National Security Council as the military worked to assess and respond to the test–Seoul launched a precision strike missile within 6 minutes of the North Korean test. Seoul’s response is striking for many reasons. South Korea had some intelligence pointing to a possible launch; it involved cooperation between the Army, Air Force, and Navy; and it “offer[ed] potent operational evidence of parts of its Kill Chain preemptive strike system and Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) plan,” two parts of South Korea’s defense strategy (The Diplomat). Moon Jae-in also worked the diplomatic reams of the crisis. In a phone call with President Trump, the two agreed to discuss further measures to punish North Korea for the test (Reuters).

While South Korea’s response was one of measured strength and cooperative diplomacy, the United States took a more hawkish stance. American Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, at an emergency meeting of the Security Council, called on nations to isolate Pyongyang by cutting all ties with North Korea, while also arguing that the test brings the peninsula closer to war (TIME). Currently, 24 nations have relations with North Korea and there are 47 North Korean diplomatic missions scattered throughout the world (CNN). However, many nations have expelled North Korean diplomats for a slew of reasons. Following its September nuclear test, 6 nations–Spain, Kuwait, Peru, Mexico, Egypt, and the Philippines–sent North Korean diplomats packing while Uganda cut all military ties in May of 2016 (Reuters). Malaysia also expelled its North Korean Ambassador following the assassination of Kim Jung-nam earlier this year (The Guardian). As North Korea continues to push for more advanced weapons and eliminates perceived threats to Kim Jung-un by any means, more nations may choose to cut ties with North Korea, though some will likely stay to act as mitigators between North Korea and the outside world.

41596479_401(Image Source: The DW)

President Trump, who has been a vocal critic of Kim Jung-un since ascending to the White House, has also lashed his teeth following the test. On Twitter, Trump said “the situation will be handled,” and called for tougher sanctions on the regime (Twitter). Outside of calling for political actions, Trump has lashed out at Pyongyang’s leader, calling Kim Jung-un a slew of names including “Little Rocket Man” (Twitter), and “Sick Puppy” (Politico). Even before his presidency, Trump has been very vocal, and often times bellicose, in criticising the North Korean regime (CNN). Despite the vitriolic rhetoric by Trump, he has hinted at the possibility of meeting with Kim Jung-un, but has said the meeting would have to happen under the right circumstances (BBC).

China, North Korea’s greatest ally in the world, demurred the test, expressing “grave concern and opposition” (CNBC). Despite having strong reservations about the nuclear and missile program, China still stands by North Korea. As American and South Korean forces conducted annual drills, China’s Air Force flew on routes and in areas it has never flown over the East and Yellow Seas, a warning to Trump against provoking Pyongyang (Forbes). The drills highlight a grave possibility if hostilities resume: China may come to the aid of North Korea. As if the possibility of Chinese intervention in a resumed Korean conflict weren’t enough to raise hairs, a Chinese provincial newspaper ran a full-page advisory giving advice to citizens called “General Knowledge about Nuclear Weapons and Protection.” The advisory ran cartoons about how to act in a nuclear attack, eventually forcing the paper to calm citizens worries (Washington Post).

Global reaction to the test was measured not in its strength or creativity in calls to action. Rather, the reactions and policy proposals following Pyongyang’s test showcased just how divided the world is on the issue. Conflicting issues will continue to mire any chance of success in bringing North Korea to the discussion table.

The North Korean security issue is a complex one, requiring a combination of hard-line isolation and more tactful diplomacy to resolve. However, there seems to be no clear path forward; diplomatic actions are likely to be cheated by Pyongyang and more aggressive actions will exacerbate tensions. The most effective actions, however, are the ones taken in unison. Nations who have a major stake in the situation–America, Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan to name a few–need to unify in a detailed approach leveling carrots and sticks toward Pyongyang. Without a clear, unified path forward, North Korea will continue to test as a way to split world powers and maintain a system of global order which favors continuing nuclear and ballistic missile tests as a way for North Korea to survive and get what it desires.

Are we Inching Closer to the Edge?: The Possibility of War on the Peninsula

Following every new advancement in Pyongyang’s capabilities, the world ponders the effects of resumed conflict on the peninsula, and following this test was no different. Barry Posen, an MIT political science professor, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times speculating the potential costs of a war on the Korean Peninsula (New York Times). American Senator Tammy Duckworth commented that the majority of the American public doesn’t know exactly how close to war the situation really is (Vox).

North Korea, for its part, has not been working to squash such fears. After a rhetorical tit-for-tat, a North Korean spokesman was quoted as saying that “these confrontational warmongering remarks cannot be interpreted in any other way but as a warning to us to be prepared for a war on the Korean Peninsula,” (Newsweek). An article in the Korean Central News Agency strongly demurred the recent actions by the Americans, calling the outbreak of war “an established fact” (KCNA).[1] Such comments have done nothing but strengthened the idea that war is inevitable, but is it really?

Despite the highly tense rhetoric, war is still far from an established fact. Barry Posden, in The New York Times, writes that “the complexity, risks and costs of a military strike against North Korea are too high.” He reaches this conclusion by citing that America would have to make several unobvious maneuvers, a task with a high chance of failure. Also, North Korea would, despite the success of a preemptive attack, have a chance to respond, and “the detonation of even a small number of nuclear weapons in North Korea would produce hellish results” (New York Times).

Another key reason war is further from resumption is the rationality behind North Korea’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles (Wall Street Journal). Kim Jung-un views the program as a way to ensure his security as a global leader and understands that war would most likely lead to his unseating. Those around him, though they are unable to rein in Kim, also face a scenario of loss of power if hostilities resume.[2]

As the situation stands today, we are no closer to war than we were a few days or months ago. The most realistic chance of war comes from the high likelihood of a miscalculation by either Trump or Kim in either rhetoric or action. Maintenance of the status-quo along with tough sanctions and pressure, though a flawed and possibly resultless strategy, continues to be the best of the worst case on the peninsula. It is only through a mix of pressure and creative diplomacy, backed by the entire international community, presents the greatest opportunity to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table, though it still does not guarantee that negotiation will lead Pyongyang to a freeze.

Notes:

[1] Source is from North Korean state media and therefore will not be linked to in this post. However, the cited Newsweek, article offers a good analysis of North Korea’s recent rhetoric, including the KCNA article.

[2] David Rothkopf, a senior fellow at SIAS, offers more insight into why a war on the peninsula is not as close as the media makes it seem. His basic framework is similar to the one I attempted to create, though his wonderful piece in the Chicago Tribune hones in on the possibilities on the Korean peninsula in more focused and detail tone than my own. I highly recommend his piece: David Rothkopf, “Here’s how the North Korea nuclear standoff will end,” Chicago Tribune, December 7, 2017. (This is today’s Daily Reading.)

Corrections:

12/8: A previous version of this article said that the precision test was performed after Moon Jae-in called a meeting of the National Security Council, when in fact the two happened fairly close to each other.

Statement on Death of Otto Warmbier

otto

(Photo: Otto Warmbier with a teacher at his 2013 high school graduation where he graduated at salutatorian. Source: Washington Post)

Otto F. Warmbier, a 22-year-old honors student at the University of Virginia, was pronounced dead at 2:20pm today in the Cincinnati hospital he was at. The Daily Beast called Warmbier’s death a “state sanctioned murder” (Daily Beast). The Warmbier family released a statement regarding the death of their son. “Unfortunately the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible,” the statement read (Washington Post). Otto will be the face of bravery to the family who loved him and, sadly, a reminder of the brutality of the North Korean regime to the rest of us. We at The Korea Page would like to extend our most sorrowful condolences to the Warmbiers who have suffered more than any family in this world should have to suffer. Each author of The Korea Page has prepared our own words, which will be shared in the sections below.

Ben Zimmer

Otto Warmbier’s passing is a tragic end to a promising life. Otto was not only a promising student, he was a brave soul to travel into the world’s most brutal regime. It is tragic that Warmbier’s story ended the way that it did and I would like to send my deepest condolences to the Warmbier family throughout this toughest of times. In order to ensure that Otto’s story is never forgotten, I, to the best of my ability, will detail his entire story against the North Korean regime.

North Korea vs. Otto Warmbier: A Case of Murder

Otto Warmbier travelled to North Korea on a group tour sponsored by Young Pioneer Tours in January of 2016. During his tour, Warmbier appeared to have a wonderful time exploring the hermit regime. A video shows Warmbier throwing snowballs at the camera with North Korean children (Washington Post)[Warmbier is the fourth from the right in the video]. However, things took a turn for the worst as he was boarding a plane home.

While boarding a plane home, Warmbier was arrested under the guise that he entered the country with hostile intent. In state media, North Korea stated that Warmbier attempted to steal a propaganda poster, accusing him of “perpetrating a hostile act,” though details of this hostile act were vague at the time (CBS). In a show trial in March of 2016, Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labor (Yonhap). In his trail, the North Koreans used video allegedly showing Otto stealing the poster and convicted him of committing a hostile act at the behest of a church organization and the CIA to bring down the North Korean state (NY Times). Before his sentencing, Warmbier pleaded for his release. “I made the worst mistake of my life,” he said (Bustle). Video of the trail shows a distressed Warmbier crying as he pleads for his future.[1]

17northkorea-3-master675

(Photo: Otto Warmbier being escorted by authorities at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang. Source: NY Times)

During his time in captivity, Otto Warmbier slipped into a coma after, as North Korea alleged, contracting botulism and taking a sleeping pill, a claim refuted from the beginning by Warmbier’s father (NBC News). Hours after his release, Dr. Kanter, director of neurocritical care at the University of Cincinnati Health System, reported that Warmbier showed no signs of botulism, but rather had suffered a severe neurological injury and brain damage resulting from loss of oxygen (Korea Herald). Kanter called Warmbier’s state–inability to understand language, unresponsive to commands, lack of understanding surroundings–as an “unresponsive wakefulness (CNN). On June 19th, the Warmbier family released a statement saying their son had completed his journey home and passed away at 2:20pm (Washington Post). Following the news, President Trump condemned the brutality of the North Korean regime (The Hill).

16nkorea2-master768

(Photo: Otto Warmbier being carried off the plane after landing in Ohio. Source: NY Times)

Otto’s story is one tragedy and loss. North Korea denied Warmbier consular visits and medical care while in custody. Information regarding his condition was closely guarded and Warmbier was released only when his life was at its end. End to end, his treatment is a gross human rights violation requiring a swift and strong response. The death of an American citizen at the hands of a state actor is repulsive and condemnable at all levels.

Young Pioneer Tours and The Future of Travel to North Korea

Young Pioneer Tours was established by Gareth Johnson in 2008 as a way to combine his love of travel with his interest in the people and culture of the DPRK (Young Pioneer Tours). The company prides itself on budget tours of North Korea, offering a wide range of travel packages and tours. Otto was on a New Year’s tour offered by the company when he was detained.

Upon his release, Young Pioneer Tours continued to claim that North Korea was one of the safest spots to travel to. Following Otto’s death, Young Pioneer Tours updated its North Korea FAQ. “Despite what you may hear, for most nationalities, North Korea is probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit provided you follow the laws,” the page now reads (Young Pioneer Tours). The company also reported its intent to cease taking American tourists citing a higher risk of detainment and death (NK News; Young Pioneer Tours). Even before Otto’s case, Young Pioneer Tours has allegedly put tourists in North Korea in danger; Gareth Johson is said to condone heavy drinking and sexual questions to North Korean women (NY Times).

Young Pioneer Tours handling of the situation was, at best, removed from the urgency of the situation. In a statement released following the detainment of Warmbier, Young Pioneer Tours bragged about their record of low arrests (Young Pioneer Tours Statement). Even following Warmbier’s return in a coma, Young Pioneer Tours called North Korea an extremely safe country for tourists (NY Times). Young Pioneer Tours handling of Otto’s case was negligent and also abhorrent. Instead of highlighting the grave situation Warmbier was in, the company languished on its resume and continued to promote tours to North Korea on a budget. Though not at fault, Young Pioneer Tours handling of the case is repulsive and worthy of criticism.

Politically, travel to North Korea by American citizens may be in jeopardy. In light of Otto’s case, President Trump, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, is mulling the possibility of enacting travel restrictions to North Korea, maybe even an outright ban (NPR).

 

Notes:

[1] Full video of Otto Warmbier’s trail can be found at the Bustle source cited above.

Leon Newkirk

The denial of medical treatment to Otto Warmbier was a denial of his humanity. The actions of the North Korean officials echo a sentiment of a bygone era which may nations vowed to prevent from reoccurring in modern times. Warmbier’s case demonstrates the brutal mistreatment of foreigners and prisoners within North Korea. Human beings are human beings, not mere casualties in the conflicts among state governments. People easily become bargaining chips in an ever-polarizing world. We, as people, should keep in mind of the mental and emotional damage that inhumane treatment causes. Whether they fight on the frontlines or simply visit a country, everyone has a mother and father that cares deeply for them.

Warmbier’s conviction was the attempted theft of a propaganda poster from his hotel. Though a country has a right to enforce its own laws within its borders, North Korea’s conviction for what many would see as a simple prank speaks volumes. A sentencing of 15 years’ hard labor combined with severe beatings reveals excessive abuse of power, alludes to the secretive and cryptic nature of North Korea, the sheer harshness of capital and state punishment, and the extent to which the North Korean government will go to prevent pieces of truth from reaching the world. Otto’s case speaks volumes about the North Korean government, its laws and politics, and its officials.

 

The People vs. President Park: An Analysis of the December 9 Impeachment Vote

Friday, December 9, 2016, was a historic day in South Korea.  President Park Geun-hye was confronted with a vote on the motion to impeach her in the national assembly, which resulted in a 234-56 vote in favor of impeachment.  This is now uncharted territory for the Korean government and people as the motion is now waiting a ruling from the constitutional court; this is the first impeachment process in which the president is directly involved in the scandal, meaning Park may be the first democratically elected president in South Korean history to be fully impeached.  In light of the Choi scandal, this move may be the only way for South Koreans to restore faith in Korea’s highest office, and the political system in general.  Due to this historic occasion, this entire post will be devoted to the impeachment.  The first section will outline the scandals cited in the motion, while the second will explore the future of South Korea, showing a possibility for each plausible ruling and outlining possible effects on other aspects of Korean politics and economy.

The Road to Impeachment: Park’s 2014-2016 Leadership Crisis

President Park Guen-hye has been wrapped in scandal for the past few months as South Koreans come to the streets in numbers not seen since the Democratization movement of the 1980s; two weeks ago (November 26), 1.5 million protested throughout the country and last weekend 1.7 million took to the streets  (New York Times; Voice of America).  Protests of this magnitude rocked Korea for six straight weekends as the National Assembly worked to bring Park face to face with an impeachment motion.  But what exactly caused the demise of Park?  The answer, though seemingly simple, is a tad complex and the impeachment motion placed several issues on the block for reasons to impeach Park (Yonhap).  Incidents cited in the motion included the Sewol tragedy and the current Choi scandal.  Both are detailed below.

Way before the current scandal started to unravel any legitimacy President Park retained through her last two years, another scandal shook the foundations of her presidency.  On the morning of April 16, 2014, the Sewol ferry capsized during a journey to Jeju Island as it carried mostly high school students.  Throughout the day, the death toll quickly rose; around 6:30pm local time, Yonhap ran a headline saying 292 had died in the incident (Yonhap).  The sinking and the following investigation revealed a web of corruption charges against the owner of the ferry and his family, and many of the crew were unable to escape scrutiny and, in some cases, even charges (BBC; Yonhap; Yonhap); however, the lack of action by President Park drew international criticism.  The ferry sank at 8:45am.  Park, however, did not show up on the site until 5:15pm.  (Author knows from personal experience that it takes around 5 hours maximum to travel across the southern half of the peninsula, and that includes a long stop to get food.)  These 7 hours are still shrouded in mystery, though Park did receive several briefings on the incident throughout the day (Korea Times).  It would take the current revelations to get some answers on the president’s whereabouts as the Sewol tragedy unfolded.  An article released in the HanKyoreh revealed that Park got her hair dressed for 90 minutes during that time period (HanKyoreh*).  Park’s staff quickly refuted the time, saying the hairdresser was only there for 20 minutes (Asia Correspondent; Yonhap).  This was not the only aspect which drew criticism, however.  During the rescue operations, several difficulties arose, including communication difficulties between agencies which made the rescue operation difficult (Korea Herald).  In response, Park dissolved the Korean Coast Guard (Reuters). This scandal shook President Park’s seeming infallibility as her approval ratings dipped below 40% for the first time (Korea Times).  The sinking brought Koreans – both grieving family and supporters – to Gwanghwamun Square in protest of the government’s actions on that fateful day (The Telegraph).  In May of 2015, protesters gathered to mark the first anniversary of the tragedy, while also criticizing the lack of independence in the government’s investigation into the incident (Amnesty International).  Though the political fallout from this incident was not as damning as the current scandal, at the time, it started the downward spiral which would become Park’s final two years in office.[1][2]

Fast forward to 2016, and President Park becomes embroiled in the scandal which, in the end, was the final straw for the South Korean people.  It started in July when students, while protesting the opening of a night school for employees, demanded an investigation into the Choi scandal at an 86-day sit-in (Korea Times).  Four months later, JTBC started to run stories questioning the relationship between Park and Choi.  One of the earlier stories, released online October 26, called into question the influence Park and Choi had in terms of the Mir Foundation – one of Choi’s two foundations currently under investigation – and the possibility that Park had shared confidential documents with Choi (JTBC*).  Following these revelations, Park gave her first televised apology two days later.  During her speech, Park admitted that Choi had edited speeches during her 2012 campaign, and that she had shared some documents with Choi (Bloomberg).  The speech came after Park had called for a major constitutional revision which opposition lawmakers saw as creating a distraction from the allegations (The Korea Page).  On October 30, Choi returned to Korea and was subsequently arrested on November 3, charged with influence peddling and abuse of power (Choson Ilbo; AlJezzera; New York Times).  The charges reflected the situation, as Choi allegedly used her relationship with Park to force companies to donate to her two foundations (Korea Times); promote appointments of people to powerful positions within the government and private sectors (KBS); edited speeches for the president while also having access to a variety of classified material (JoongAng Daily); and even had influence in the diplomatic and political situations of the government despite not holding an official position in the Park administration (International Business Times).  The investigation continued through November.  And, on November 4, Park gave her second apology speech in which she outlined her relationship with Choi (Korea Times).  On November 20, prosecutors announced their desire to charge Park herself with collusion, though under the constitution she is unable to be tried while in office (The Guardian)[3]. On November 29, Park gave her third apology speech, delegating the shortening of her term over to the National Assembly.  South Koreans of all walks of life demurred her remarks, arguing that she step down on her own (Kyunghyang Shinmun). As the story continued to unravel, Park lost all of her legitimacy as the leader of the South Korean people.  Her overall approval ratings tanked quickly, eventually reaching 4%, an all-time low for any democratically elected president in South Korea (Reuters).  For six straight weeks, protestors lined the streets of Seoul, and throughout the country, calling for her resignation in record numbers; the final weekend before the vote – December 3 – 1.7 million people protested throughout the country (Voice of America).  It was this scandal which ultimately brought Park down, resulting in the impeachment vote on Friday. (For a good timeline of the scandal, see this Financial Times article.)[1]

These two scandals formed the basis of the impeachment motion which was introduced on December 3.  Before its introduction into the Assembly, Saenuri lawmakers advised the opposition to remove the reference to the Sewol tragedy and focus on the charges levied against the president by the prosector’s office (Sputnik).  The motion went to a full vote on December 9.  Around 4pm local time, Chung Sye-kyun announced the results of the vote: 234 in favor, 56 opposed, 2 abstaining, 7 unaccounted (Yonhap*).  With the passage of the motion, Park is stripped of all powers and Prime Minister Hwang Kho-ahn will be acting president.  As for the motion, the Constitutional Court will review it and has 180 days to render a verdict either upholding the motion or rescinding it.

A Web of Uncertainty: Post-Impeachment South Korea

For the foreseeable future, the Constitutional Court will be debating the motion, hearing from both sides, and then render a verdict to uphold or rescind it.  If they uphold the verdict, South Korea will enter a period with a political vacuum.  If rescinded, Park may be forced out office through resignation.  No matter what the court decides, South Korea will enter a period of unprecedented political turmoil which may spark a small economic recession, worry South Korean alliances, and provide North Korea with an opportune time to launch a provocation.

If the court rules in favor of this motion with a minimum of 6 votes, President Park will be formally removed from office and an election will be triggered within 60 days of the ruling to fill the vacuum left by the impeachment motion.  Until the election, Prime Minister Hwang Kho-ahn will remain acting president.  As for who will win the election, at the moment it is tough to decipher.  But there are a few front runners who may throw their hat into the presidential ring.  UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon currently holds the top spot among prospective candidates.  In September, Yonhap reported his ratings at 32.7%, almost double his closest competitor (Yonhap).  Ban is a conservative and has thought of joining the ruling party if he decides to run.  In an article, a staff reporter at the HanKyroeh ranked Ban against other top ruling perspective candidates (HanKyoreh).  However, the current scandal has soured the ruling party in Ban’s eyes; many experts have hinted that running on the ticket would be a bad idea (Korea Times; Reuters).  However, Ban’s possibilities may be hindered by the simple fact that he has been based in New York for a decade and has not run for office in South Korea (Reuters).  (Ban Ki-moon has yet to declare his intent to run.)  Ban’s closest competitor, former Minjoo Party leader Moon Jae-in, polled at 17.3% in the Yonhap article (Yonhap).  In 2012, Moon Jae-in ran an unsuccessful race against Park, winning only 48% of the vote (New York Times; Washington Post).  Currently, Moon is under heavy fire for his actions during a 2007 UN resolution vote.  In his memoir, ex-President Roh Moo-hyun’s Foreign Minister Song Min-soon, revealed that Moon Jae-in, then Roh’s chief of staff, backed a resolution to seek advice from North Korea regarding the vote (Korea Times).  If elected, Moon Jae-in may also seek to reverse the policy of trustpolitik – Park’s North Korea policy – favoring a Sunshine 2.0.  Other opposition candidates also have major baggage coming with them; another presidential hopeful, Park Won-soon, heads a party which was against a North Korean human rights legislation and also hinted at justifying the sinking of the Cheonnan (One Free Korea).  The political landscape of Korea following the ousting of Park is a very murky one.  No party has backed a candidate yet, though many hopefuls are working to place themselves in the public eye.  If the election comes sooner rather than later, the opposition will have a chance in winning, since the Saenuri party will have to rebrand and distance itself from Park.  This may take a while to do effectively.

However, if the court decides to rescind the motion, or fails to come to a super majority in favor in upholding the decision, Park’s powers as the president will be reinstated.  If this result comes to fruition, the public may express outrage against the Constitutional Court.  President Park will also face yet another legitimacy crisis; she will have to govern a country which does not see her as a leader.  This is even more crucial as her approval rating inched up to 5% after the impeachment vote (Reuters).  She will have to quickly work to reassure the South Korean public that she has their best interest in mind if she wishes to stay in power.  A seeming impossibility after the Choi scandal.  The public, however, would be the least of concerns.  If placed back in power, Park will face a very strong opposition with a majority following the National Assembly elections in April 2016  (HanKyroeh).  Currently, the opposition parties are calling for a delay in the deployment of THAAD, a major milestone of the Park administration, releasing a statement saying “an administration impeached by the people cannot push forward with the project” (Korea Times).  The opposition may only grow more fervent in their demurring of Park’s policy ideas if her presidential powers are reinstated.  Facing such a difficult turmoil in implementing and creating policy, as well as growing unpopularity with the Korean people, the best strategy if the motion is rescinded is to resign.  With a resignation, Park will show her solidarity with the people, which may raise her approval ratings overall.

Impeachment motions in Korea have created a sense of economic uncertainty.  In 2004, during the impeachment proceedings of Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea’s economy grew by only 2.9%, compared with 6.9% growth the previous year (The Guardian).  The current motion, however, will have less an impact on the Korean economy in the near term.  Following the impeachment, South Korea’s KOSPI index shrank from 2031.7 to 2024.69.  However, since the impeachment, the KOSPI index has continued to rise (Bloomberg Markets).  Economic minister Yoo Il-ho ensured the Korean public that the impeachment vote will have a minimal effect on the Korean economy (Yonhap).  Other factors, however, may continue to hinder the economy of South Korea.  For example, the Samsung galaxy incident and shipbuilders are experiencing a downsizing (Bloomberg).  As it currently stands, the impeachment motion itself will have a minimal effect on the economy, which has endured shock due to political uncertainty.

South Korea also faces a strong political delay in both domestic and international politics.  The biggest domestic issue taking a back seat to the scandal is the textbook issue.  On November 28, South Korea’s Ministry of Education revealed the first draft of the controversial textbooks, featuring a wide array of edits (Yonhap).  The issue of state-authored history textbooks brought many to Seoul to protest the Park administration and, as of now, Hwang has done nothing to stop the publication of the textbooks – though one can understand why his mind may be elsewhere right now – and there is little to hint that a change will occur (Yonhap).  Internationally, THAAD and the future of the American-Korean alliance have also taken a back seat.  Korea has been unable to work with the American president-elect to ensure the alliance remains strong.  The deployment of THAAD also has an unclear future.  Opposition parties are calling for a delay in the deployment – see above paragraph – while General Brooks said there would be no delay in THAAD deployment on the peninsula (Yonhap).  As Hwang struggles to take on the burden of presidential power, there is little to hint at a change in the status-quo in the Korean political situation until a new leader is selected.  If the opposition party is placed in power, then, with a majority in the National Assembly and Presidential Office control, may work to overturn the more controversial aspects of Park’s policies.

Conclusions

South Korea is entering a point of uncertainty as it enters 2017.  Park had her leadership stymied by her relationship with a close friend, Choi Soon-sil, and South Korean political leadership has had to focus on restoring public faith in the highest office in the country.  This means major domestic issues, for example state-authored textbooks, and foreign policy issues, such as THAAD deployment and preparation for the new American president,  have taken a back seat as the resolution works its way through the legal structure.

The presidential election is the key aspect to determining South Korea’s future, though it is difficult to predict the outcome.  If the opposition parties are able to secure a victory, Park’s more controversial moves – textbooks, THAAD, closing Kaesong – may be up for reconsideration.  Also, the next presidential candidate will shoulder the burden of securing a strong alliance with the United States and the imcoming Trump administration.  Through the turbulence, South Korea’s political future is tough to predict.  Economically, however, South Korea seems to maintain the status-quo and will not face a serious slide in the aftermath of this election.  Park’s impeachment in light of the Choi revelations places Korea in a place of uncertainty as it enters 2017, and has stalled political advancement in both domestic and international arenas.  Hwang will have a difficult time maintaining the status-quo as impeachment runs through the court, but it appears he is taking this new responsibility on with stride.

Notes

*Source is in Korean

[1] There is a lot of nuance and information missing from my current analysis since I tried to write a short summary.  If you have a question or wish for me to elaborate on the points presented in this post, please post your question in the comments section and I shall elaborate to the best of my ability, with additional sources.

[2] Between these two scandals, in November 2015, Park introduced a policy for Korea to return to state-authored textbooks, which only multiplied public resentment of her following the Sewol sinking.

[3] Despite being impeached, Park is still the sitting president, barring a ruling from the Constitutional Court.  Once a South Korean president is impeached, they lose all political power such as appointing judges to courts, influencing and creating domestic and foreign policy.  But impeached presidents in Korea get to live in the Blue House and retain the title of president until the court rules on the motion.

(I apologize that some sections may be lacking in terms of clarity and analysis – I tried to write and get this up quickly.  Any questions may be addressed in the comments and I promise to clarify and also elaborate on anything missing in this post.  Also, I am able to answer any questions about the situation with more sources.)