Rob York is Program Director for Regional Affairs at the Pacific Forum. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Korean history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he also received his master’s degree in Asian studies. Before joining the Pacific Forum, York worked as a production editor at The South China Morning Post and as chief editor of NK News, a specialist site focused on news and analysis of North Korea. York’s research specialties include North Korean diplomacy and leadership politics, as well as East Asian trade and media discourse. He has worked for newspapers in the United States, South Korea and Hong Kong, and earned his bachelor’s degree in communications from Southern Adventist University in Tennessee.
Articles by Rob York
Winter/Spring 2022 was a dynamic, clarifying time in US-Korea relations, following repetitious, turbid reporting periods in 2021. South Korea geared up for and held a presidential election, won with a razor-thin margin by conservative Yoon Suk-yeol. His new administration, replacing the progressive government of term-limited Moon Jae-in, promises to place very different accents on the US-South Korea alliance and inter-Korean relations. Washington is relieved to see Yoon assume office, as US senior leadership, policymakers, and alliance managers are comfortable with his foreign and security/defense policy team. Moon and his progressives did plenty to advance the US-South Korea alliance, but their parochial, Peninsula-focused diplomacy was occasionally a source of friction and often seemingly quixotic vis-à-vis North Korea. The Yoon administration is poised to attempt to make the US-South Korea alliance more comprehensive geographically and functionally, although conservative administrations also pose their own idiosyncratic risks to the US-ROK alliance. For its part, North Korea embarked on an unprecedented missile launch spree during the January-April 2022 reporting period, with 13 separate tests or demonstrations (with three more to follow so far in May) of a variety of known and new systems ranging from short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) to hypersonic weapons to (supposedly) the previously untested Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Three more missile tests followed in May. North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un subtly clarified that Pyongyang’s nuclear posture is not totally deterrence-focused, but includes warfighting use, underscoring the likelihood the regime develops tactical nuclear weapons. This would also likely mean a seventh nuclear test. Pyongyang’s provocations and fiery rhetoric were leavened with celebration, as April parades in North Korea marked the 110th Day of the Sun (the birthday of Kim Il Sung) and the 90th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean People’s Army (KPA). These events have a primarily domestic focus, but they also serve as international propaganda, announcing outwardly that North Korea is strong and united. This attempt at perception management will be tested by reality, as an outbreak of omicron variant COVID-19 in early May represents a serious risk for North Korea.
Looming in the background of these events was the Russia-Ukraine war, which has current and future implications for US relations with the Koreas. South Korea slowly but surely supported US-led sanctions on Russia, while North Korea predictably blamed the US for the conflict. Going forward, Washington’s likely increasing pressure on Moscow will be a litmus test for Seoul’s willingness to work comprehensively with its alliance partner on maintaining the international rules-based order; that same pressure campaign will also open up possibilities for greater Pyongyang-Moscow cooperation, notably in sanctions evasion.
The final four months of 2021 US-Korea relations played out largely as anticipated: the US deprioritized creative outreach to North Korea and generally subordinated the Korean Peninsula (both South and North) to the US-China rivalry. North Korea was considered likely to continue its self-imposed isolation while advancing its nuclear and missile arsenal. And it was expected that South Korea would doggedly pursue inter-Korean diplomacy while building up its military capabilities, optimizing a calibrated approach to the US and China, and bracing for a period of political opacity leading up to the March 2022 presidential election. Standard set-pieces were also evident during the September-December reporting period: US and South Korean officials did the yeoman’s work of alliance management via frequent meetings and periodic performative statements of alliance cohesion. North Korea celebrated National Foundation Day and the anniversary of the Worker’s Party of Korea, and held an end-of-year party plenum. South Korean President Moon Jae-in used his UN General Assembly speech to encourage international support for inter-Korean reconciliation.
The third trimester of 2021 did have some surprises, however. The Moon administration’s full-court press for a declaration of the end of Korean War was out of step with US and North Korean priorities. Announcement of the AUKUS (Australia-UK-US) strategic pact caught all off-guard, including Seoul, which has jealously eyed Washington’s decision to work with Canberra on a nuclear-propelled attack submarine. US insistence on ensuring that South Korea’s technology industry comports with US geostrategic aims vis-à-vis China was more strongly visible—and friction-inducing—than expected. And Squid Game rocketed from obscurity to global sensation, proving that BTS does not have a monopoly on South Korea’s cultural exports.
US relations with both South and North Korea were—with a few notable exceptions—uneventful during the May-August 2021 reporting period. If US-Korea relations displayed some excitement, it was largely along the Washington-Seoul axis. An inaugural leader summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Moon Jae-in took place in Washington, producing significant deliverables for the short, medium, and long term. Biden and Moon then participated in the June G7 summit in Great Britain. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August also provided South Korea with challenges and ponderables. Washington-Pyongyang communication was subdued, aside from standard North Korean criticism of US-South Korea joint military exercises. Even when the US and North Korea addressed each other with respect to dialogue, it was usually to underline for the other party how Washington or Pyongyang is willing to talk under the right circumstances, but capable of waiting out the other side. Late August added some spice, however, as the IAEA issued a credible report confirming what many had expected: North Korea has likely re-started fissile material production at the Yongbyon complex. Finally, outside the reporting period, Pyongyang tested a potentially nuclear-capable land-attack cruise missile on Sept. 11. Are these signs that sleeping dogs are stirring?
In the first four months of 2021—the first three and a half of a Biden administration focused on domestic progress and COVID-19 vaccinations—US relations with the Korean Peninsula assumed familiar contours after four years of an unorthodox Trump administration. The US and South Korea quickly reached a military burden-sharing agreement and pledged cooperation in a variety of areas, although the regular differences of opinion lurk under the surface regarding how closely Seoul should work with both North Korea and Japan. The US-China rivalry remains a shadow over the Asia-Pacific security and political economy situation, complicating South Korea’s regional hedging strategy. Finally, North Korea’s nuclear program advanced apace, US and South Korean attempts to open dialogue were rebuffed, and the Biden team’s North Korea policy review will not endear it to Pyongyang.
After a months-long wait to see who would lead the US from 2021, both South and North Korea got an answer in November: Joe Biden. South Korea moved to forge ties with the incoming US administration, relieved at the prospect of a more conventional White House, yet anxious for it to adopt an approach to North Korea congruent with that of the Blue House. North Korea has stayed mum on Biden’s victory, reflecting its poor relations with the former vice president, a pause to recalibrate diplomatic expectations, and domestic issues that overshadow foreign policy in Pyongyang. The latter point is fitting, as it is also true of Washington. The early days of the Biden presidency will see domestic focus due to the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine rollout, economic recovery, and the need to try to heal political and cultural divisions in the United States. That said, neither Korea can be neglected for long.
While inter-Korean relations saw a fraught—even explosive—May-August reporting period, US relations with South Korea and North Korea settled into a holding pattern commingling frustration, disappointment, occasional bared teeth (from North Korea), and frequently forced smiles (from South Korea). Washington and Seoul failed to reach agreement on troop burden-sharing, an issue weighing down the US-South Korea alliance. Meanwhile, US-South Korea joint military exercises remain scaled-down, in part due to COVID-19, even as South Korea is committing to greater capabilities for its own defense. Regarding alliance coordination on diplomacy with North Korea, the administrations of Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in continue to try to mask obvious differences in prioritization of engagement for reconciliation and pressure for denuclearization. Ties between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled such that even talking about talking makes news. And in the background, Kim Jong Un’s regime continues to build up and improve its nuclear weapons program and missile arsenal.
Overall, US relations with the two Koreas are in a wait-and-see mode, with all three governments delaying significant steps until after the November US presidential election.
The US impasse with both Koreas carried over into 2020, with little official contact with North Korea and negotiations with South Korea over troop burden-sharing going into overtime. The global pandemic forced all three governments to make sharp adjustments, with President Trump reaching out to both Seoul and Pyongyang to either offer or solicit assistance. But in both cases, the rifts appear too deep to forget, even in the face of a shared catastrophe like COVID-19.