Stephen Noerper is a Korea Society senior director, Columbia University professor, and Weatherhead East Asia Institute fellow. Previously, he was an associate professor of international relations at New York University; taught at American University; the National University of Mongolia, where he was a Fulbright Senior Scholar; and Waseda University. Noerper has also been a research fellow at the EastWest Institute, East West Center, Korea’s IFANS, and the Edward R. Murrow Center for Public Diplomacy. The author of more than sixty publications on US policy and Northeast Asia, he appears widely on media, to include the BBC, Bloomberg, CNN and VOA. He holds advanced degrees from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and London School of Economics. Noerper sits on the board of the Van Fleet Foundation, is a member of the National Committee on North Korea, and was awarded Mongolia’s State Friendship Medal.
Articles by Stephen Noerper
In contrast to last summer’s hot rhetoric and spiking tensions, the United States and North Korea moved to a June thaw with the dramatic Singapore summit. After some heavy lifting from South Korea, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un produced a vague commitment to denuclearization. By summer’s end there was little progress as North Korea and the US appeared at odds on next steps, with North Korea insisting on a peace regime and the US insisting on visible steps toward denuclearization. South Korea has emerged as the mediator. The US finally saw a new ambassador in Seoul with the appointment of Harry Harris. USFK Commander Gen. Vincent Brooks agreed with ROK defense plans for reducing posts along the DMZ, while joint US-ROK military exercises remained on hold, although Defense Secretary James Mattis hinted at their resumption next year. President Moon’s poll numbers declined, as concerns over slow progress and fissures with the US grew.
Following weapon tests and rhetorical fury in 2017, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signaled in his New Year address a marked turn toward improving inter-Korean relations. South Korean President Moon Jae-in seized the opening, lauded Trump’s hardline, stood up military hotlines, and moved North Korea to the Olympic moment. The PyeongChang Winter Olympics, Korea’s peace games, won early gold, despite US misgivings. Sport gave way to diplomacy, as North and South Korea agreed to a summit and Seoul sent its representatives north. President Trump surprised everyone by accepting Kim’s offer to meet. Washington and Seoul vowed to maintain maximum pressure and mute Trump trade concerns. Their de facto downgrade in the size of joint military exercises demonstrated flexibility. Seoul couched the Moon-Kim summit as a preliminary to the Kim-Trump sit down. Amid concerns of a split, Moon suggested Trump receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
North Korea’s sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3 and its Nov. 29 ICBM test launch were unfortunate bookends to increased tension between North Korea and the US in the closing months of 2017. The missile test, which Kim Jong Un hailed as “completing the state nuclear force,” potentially placed the entire US within range, leading Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford to warn of the likelihood of conflict. Two new UN Security Council resolutions tightened economic sanctions against North Korea. There seemed little prospect for a resumption of negotiations, despite senior US officials urging diplomacy and a visit to Pyongyang by UN Under Secretary General for Policy Jeffrey Feltman. President Trump’s September UN address and subsequent tweets challenged the DPRK leader personally and directly, renewing a war of words. Trump’s November visit to the ROK struck a more restrained tone and saw a positive ROK response. The US conducted several military exercises with its allies. Meanwhile, Seoul-Washington fissures grew over Trump’s criticism of the KORUS free trade agreement and President Moon’s eagerness to engage the DPRK – a drift that may grow after Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s call for talks and possible DPRK participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Tensions rose to new levels on the Korean Peninsula as North Korea fired multiple missiles demonstrating markedly enhanced capabilities and crowned the Labor Day weekend with a sixth nuclear test with a significantly larger yield than previous tests. The United States tackled its most significant global security challenge by reinforcing its deterrent capabilities, tightening the financial noose on the North, President Trump tweeting stern warnings, and military and diplomatic leaders calling for dialogue. South Korea responded by reiterating its military readiness, expanding its own missile capabilities, and reeling from Trump’s rhetoric that likened President Moon Jae-in’s push for talks to “appeasement” and his threat to scrap the KORUS trade agreement. Despite joint military exercises, live fire drills, B-1 dispatches, and shared statements condemning Pyongyang to signal alliance strength, the relationship between the United States and South Korea appears frayed in dramatic new ways.
North Korea tested President Trump’s new administration with a New Year promise of imminent ICBM capability and subsequent missile launches. Tensions rose to the highest level since 1993/1994 with missile launches, the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, and a possible ICBM on display at a military parade to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the DPRK’s Korean People’s Army. Washington offered Seoul assurances of support, sending Defense Secretary Mattis, Secretary of State Tillerson, and Vice President Pence in early 2017. Yet, Trump’s comments about sending an “armada” with the dispatch of the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group led South Koreans to fear blowback if the US conducted a preemptive or preventive strike against DPRK facilities. South Korea saw deployment of the first stages of THAAD, but the missile defense system and broader policy differences with May 9 ROK presidential victor Moon Jae-in will be challenges for US-South Korea relations.
North Korea opened the final months of 2016 with a bang by conducting its fifth nuclear test on Sept. 9. It followed up with a series of rocket and missile tests, culminating the year with Kim Jong Un’s claim of an imminent long-range ballistic missile capability. Yet, political transition in South Korea and the United States proved the hallmarks of late 2016, suggesting potential shifts in the approaches on the Peninsula, while underscoring the firm commitment of the US and ROK to their alliance. The Park-Choi scandal led to massive protests the final two months of the year and an impeachment vote on Dec. 9 by the National Assembly, confusing political observers about the implications for South Korean political stability. Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the US raised questions among Koreans about US reliability as an alliance partner.
The United States and South Korea entered the summer months with growing concern over North Korean missile capabilities. The DPRK Workers’ Party Congress in May signaled solidarity in Kim Jong Un’s reign, replacing the National Defense Commission with a new State Affairs Commission, and appointing Ri Yong Ho as foreign minister. Mid-summer, the US sanctioned Kim Jong Un and 10 other individuals and entities for human rights violations, and the US and ROK agreed to deploy the THAAD system against North Korea. Angered, the DPRK severed the New York channel. The US and South Korea joined together in military exercise Ulchi Freedom Guardian. Pyongyang responded by threatening to turn Seoul and Washington into a “heap of ashes through a Korean-style preemptive nuclear strike.” Finally, South Koreans expressed growing concern over the course of the US presidential campaign.
US and South Korean concerns spiked in early 2016 as North Korea demonstrated worrying advances in nuclear weapon and missile technology. Despite a rather placid New Year address, Kim Jong Un raised international alarm with the DPRK’s fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6. A month later, North Korea launched a three-stage rocket, a direct violation of a UN missile ban. The US Congress passed more rigorous sanctions legislation, seeking to stem financial flows and punish second-party facilitators. On March 3, UN Security Council Resolution 2270 calling for tougher sanctions passed unanimously. Seoul added its own unilateral sanctions on March 8. Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un’s display of a nuclear device and reentry technology, failed intermediate-range missile tests, and a successful submarine-launched ballistic missile test added to growing concerns. ROK President Park Geun-hye called for additional multilateral efforts. While North Korea is pushing back hard, some suggest its provocations and rhetoric may be for foreign consumption in the lead-up to the highly anticipated Party Congress in May, a first in 36 years.
The final months of 2015 saw hedging around South Korea’s relationship with China, strong support for the US-ROK alliance in the face of DPRK threats, a US-ROK summit, and heightened concern as North Korea prepared for a fourth nuclear test, which came on Jan. 6. With the US and South Korea watching closely for signs of a missile or nuclear test, North Korea marked the 70th anniversary of its Workers Party on Oct. 10 without incident. The US-ROK presidential summit appeared solid, with a joint statement against the North Korean nuclear and missile threats and shared concern over DPRK human rights violations. The US again took up the issue of DPRK human rights violations at the UN Security Council in December as reports of possible purges in North Korea continued to attract US and ROK attention. The US was pleased in late December by an agreement between South Korea and Japan on “comfort women.”
The US and ROK marked the 65th anniversary of the start of the Korean War while the region commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which also marks Korean Liberation Day. The US and South Korea conducted annual military exercises mid-August amidst a flare up in inter-Korean tensions. North Korea backed down from a semi-war state and expressed regret over the landmine maiming of two ROK soldiers, as South Korea agreed to silence its speakers along the DMZ, and both agreed to talks aimed at family reunions.
The early months of 2015 saw little change in US-DPRK relations while there were several positive developments in US-ROK relations. There were new US sanctions on North Korea over the Sony Pictures cyber-hacking incident and increased concern about North Korean advances in nuclear and missile technology as the US and others continued to criticize the DPRK’s human rights record. Meanwhile, South Korea and the US held their annual military exercises and concluded a new civilian nuclear agreement. Distractions from the positive trajectory in US-ROK relations included the debate over the value of deploying the THAAD system in South Korea and the unfortunate attack on US Ambassador Mark Lippert.
The closing months of 2014 saw new US vulnerabilities as North Korea purportedly leveled a massive cyberattack against Sony Pictures Entertainment. President Obama attributed the attack to the DPRK and promised a “proportional” response. Citing an increase in the broader DPRK threat, the US and ROK affirmed common cause and new resolve, agreeing to delay transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) over ROK forces. Meanwhile, North Korea’s human rights record was condemned as the UN General Assembly voted for a referral to the International Criminal Court. The DPRK responded with a diplomatic “charm” offensive involving senior-level engagements around the globe and the release of three US detainees.
The summer months saw steady progress in ROK-US relations, following President Obama’s visit to Seoul where he offered reassurances on the US rebalance toward Asia. Military activity included Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises, involving tens of thousands of South Korean and US soldiers. Pyongyang grumbled about the exercises as well as the visit by Pope Francis to Seoul, but contained its anger to diatribes and short-range missile launches. The biggest development for the ROK-US relationship came with the visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Seoul for what some viewed as an overly warm summit with President Park Geun-hye.
The highlight in US-Korea relations was President Barack Obama’s visit to Seoul in April. The visit came at an uncertain time in Korea: South Korea was in the troughs of a national tragedy with a ferry sinking, North Korea threatened a “new form of nuclear test,” and regional tensions remained high amidst territorial and historical disputes. During his visit to Seoul, Obama offered sympathies to the families of the victims of the ferry disaster and assurances with Park on North Korean rumblings. Meanwhile, North Korea returned to a pattern of bellicose spring rhetoric for the second year under Kim Jong Un, ostensibly as a counter to US-ROK military exercises. This escalation in belligerence seemingly negated earlier diplomatic overtures.