Small but Indispensable: South Korea as “Jungjaeja”

By | March 01, 2019 | No Comments

Image from Newsis 2019.03.01. photo1006@newsis.com

As scooters sped by on the streets of Hanoi with lethal speed yesterday, most international eyes were on the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel, where the leaders of North Korea and the United States sat down for their second summit following a convivial dinner the night before. Following on from the two countries’ first summit on June 12th last year, hopes were high that an agreement more concrete than the Singapore Joint Statement would result. On the contrary, talks collapsed.

The major challenge of yesterday’s failed summit doesn’t really rest with either Kim Jong-un or Donald Trump, both of whom emerge looking like tough negotiators who will live to fight another day. Rather, it is with the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, who was evidently planning to announce the launch of a dramatic new phase of inter-Korean relations today; March 1, the 100th anniversary of the day in 1919 when all Koreans — neither north nor south, and inspired by US President Woodrow Wilson’s emancipatory rhetoric — rose up against the occupying Japanese.

How South Korea acts hereafter is set to be a major point of interest for the coming months. South Korea’s credentials as a “middle power” are bound to be sorely tested. Here, Yujin Lim looks at the concept of South Korea as a middle power, and analyses the way forward. — Christopher Green, Senior Editor.

Small but Indispensable: South Korea as Jungjaeja

by Yujin Lim

President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un’s meeting in Hanoi ended more quickly than many had expected. In Seoul, ‘no deal’ might have been predicted, and certainly planned for, but this short-term result from Hanoi in no way bodes well for South Korean interests. Since taking office in May 2017, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea has put significant effort into peacemaking with North Korea. His multiple meetings with Kim Jong-un last year rightly attracted keen attention and resulted in a framework for renewed inter-Korean ties, even in the sensitive area of military relations. South Korea’s role as a bridge-builder has left a strong impression on regional actors.

As US-North Korea relations remain stalled at the negotiating table, it is very likely that South Korea will again try to build a bridge across the impasse; as Trump said in his press conference after the meeting in Hanoi, “President Moon is working very hard; he would love to see a deal.”

The question of the extent to which  South Korea can play the middleman role between Pyongyang and Washington is, on the one hand, very specific to itself. On the other hand, we can understand South Korea as a small state that has to operate within the international system. For a very good reason, South Korea calls itself jungjaeja (중재자), which can be translated as mediator or moderator.

Impartiality is a core aspect of mediation. Jacob Eriksson 1)Jacob Eriksson, Small State Mediation in International Conflicts: Diplomacy and Negotiation in Israel-Palestine (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015), 3. says that “small states are traditionally accepted as mediators due to their non-threatening political posture.” It is because that they do not have the capability to directly threaten the parties which can be used as a leverage to coerce them into an agreement. Secondly, a mediator is expected to have a good reputation for skillful diplomacy and regional expertise among its experts. Eriksson’s research looks at a relatively successful example of mediation; namely, Norway and Sweden’s role in mediating the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

In the strictest sense, and certainly from the North Korean point of view, it is clear that an intermediary role is not what South Korea stands for. South Korea is a state technically at war with North Korea. Seoul maintains extensive military capabilities, and constitutionally claims the North’s territory as its own. Nevertheless, under President Moon Jae-in, South Korea aims to be a facilitator of communication between Pyongyang and Washington, and that is what South Korea means by calling itself jungjaeja.

Given this role and Seoul’s obvious aspirations, how much leverage does the Moon administration have and to what degree can it influence the US or China? Prior to her appointment as Seoul’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Enna Park discussed South Korea’s limited diplomatic resources and the need to operate as a self-conscious ‘middle power.’

Influencing those Great Powers takes more than cultural diplomacy and military assets; a small country must prioritize its own interests whilst putting forth the common interest that it shares with the Great Power(s). Luckily, in South Korea’s case, security has always been at the core of its relationship with Washington, and the US has a significant interest in maintaining its role in South Korea as an important foothold in East Asia. This strategic tie has traditionally represented the common interest. However, Trump has been a disrupter of this military harmony, often complaining about the costs associated with defense – even raising the issue in his press conference after the failed Hanoi summit.

Trump’s skeptical viewpoint toward military exercises on the Korean Peninsula is well known, and he again vented his frustrations in Hanoi.

If this complaint is continuously made, and the US demands yet further cost-bearing by South Korea even after Seoul agreed to increase its contribution to a whopping 924 million USD in 2019, the possibility of reducing the number of exercises and troops involved cannot be ruled out. From the standpoint of power relations, regardless of the dollar figures, the very topic of US protection of South Korea puts the government in Seoul in an inferior position to the US.

The Korean language provides a convenient means of describing this situation. It is the relationship between gap (갑; 甲) and eul (을; 乙).  South Koreans often use this binary as a metaphorical phrase to frame a hierarchical relationship between the two parties (often used to refer the abuse of power) – gab is in a superior position to eul – just as in the relationship of the US and South Korea. The US has more power and it provides the protection whereas South Korea is a small power that is dependent on the US.

To borrow a Chinese idiom, this is a wukeinaihe (无可奈何) situation, meaning that there is no possibility of doing anything about it, because minor adjustments do not alter the basic asymmetry.

But South Korea is far from hemmed in completely. Moon was able to bridge diplomatic gaps in 2017 and 2018, and South Korea managed to build a base to legitimately call itself a jungjaeja. Moon Jae-in is not reading Eriksson, but this particular theorist’s work on the positive aspect of a small state very much holds true for South Korea: It has a non-threatening political posture and the reputation for skilled diplomacy along with extensive knowledge on the region. Its identity as jungjaeja is limited to the bridge-making role that brings parties to sit at the table, but it is a significant role all the same.

A Game Changer| South Korea’s ongoing cultivation as a middle power and as a mediator between Washington and Pyongyang is taking place within a global moment wherein American unilateralism is ascendant and US alliances and commitment to traditional institutions like the United Nations questioned.  In an interview with JTBC, Roh-era Minister of Unification Jung Sae-hyun said that US National Security Advisor John Bolton’s joining in the later part of talks with Kim Jong-un was a sign that made him kkeolimjig-hada [꺼림칙하다]  – meaning leery.

Bolton is clearly skeptical of South Korea’s role on the North Korean issue. This explains Jung’s further speculation that Bolton had unexpectedly broadened the issues to which the North Koreans had to respond in Hanoi and brought WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) to the table as part of the deal. Bolton’s participation might have changed the atmosphere of the talks.

Conclusion | Judging from the events and outcome in Hanoi, South Korea’s role as jungjaeja did not impact the negotiation between the US and North Korea. Nevertheless, given how Kim Jong-un answered a couple of questions from journalists before the meeting began, North Korea has already made progress in terms of coming out of its shell, and South Korea has played a big role in lubricating relations.

In his remarks at the 100th anniversary of the March 1st Movement earlier today, Moon said, “Now our role has become more important,” adding that South Korea will closely communicate with the US and North Korea to achieve a settlement, and that South Korea will take the lead in the New Peninsula System (신한반도체제); which he defined as the Peace and Cooperation Community (평화협력공동체) and Economic Cooperation Community (경제협력공동체).

In his speech, Moon appealed to the emotion of South Koreans by emphasizing that there was no North or South Korea on the Peninsula when the 3.1 independence movement happened 100 years ago, and all Koreans became one and shouted for independence peacefully at the time. Whether Seoul can now get its allies and adversaries to shout as one, and stop shouting at each other in the pursuit of regional peace, remains to be seen.

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1. Jacob Eriksson, Small State Mediation in International Conflicts: Diplomacy and Negotiation in Israel-Palestine (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015), 3.

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