Victor Cha

CSIS/Georgetown University
Photo of Victor Cha

Victor D. Cha is Director of Asian Studies and D.S. Song Chair in the Department of Government and School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. and adjunct Senior Fellow at the Pacific Council for International Policy in Los Angeles.  He served from 2004 to 2007 as director for Asian Affairs on the National Security Council and as deputy head of the U.S. delegation to the Six-Party Talks (2006-7). He is the award-winning author of Alignment Despite Antagonism: The United States-Korea-Japan Triangle, and Nuclear North Korea (Columbia, 2001) with David Kang. Dr. Cha is a two-time recipient of the Fulbright (Korea) and MacArthur Foundation Fellowships. He is formerly a John M. Olin National Security Fellow at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs and postdoctoral fellow at CISAC and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Professor Cha is an independent consultant for the public and private sector.  His new book is Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia (Columbia, Summer 2008).

Articles by Victor Cha

US - Korea

September — December 2013

The Demise of Jang Song Thaek

The best news in the final months of the year was South Korea’s announcement of its interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Beyond that, we saw bad, ugly, and unpredictable developments.  North Korea startled the world by purging and executing Jang Song Thaek, only to be followed by the indefatigable Dennis Rodman’s visit to the country. China’s declaration of its new East China Sea ADIZ caused a momentary lapse in Seoul’s good alliance management. The year ended with no progress on bilateral negotiations between the US and ROK on a range of issues, leaving 2014 with a great deal of unfinished business.

US - Korea

May — August 2013

A Good Start

The highlight of US-ROK relations was the first summit between Barack Obama and Park Geun-hye in Washington where the two presidents celebrated the 60th birthday of the alliance. Obama announced his support for Park’s “trustpolitik” initiative, demonstrating bilateral agreement on policies toward North Korea. The US also voiced support for the thaw in inter-Korean relations reflected in resumption of dialogue over the Kaesong Industrial Complex.  Meanwhile, South Korea and the US agreed to an extension of the US-ROK civil nuclear agreement, began negotiations on a Special Measures Agreement (host nation support for US forces), and restarted discussions on a possible delay of OPCON transfer.

US - Korea

January — April 2013

Crisis Du Jour

In early 2013, the Korean Peninsula cycled back into crisis. Three weeks after the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on North Korea for its rocket launch in December 2012, North Korea conducted a third nuclear test. This led to a series of antics from the young leader, including a meeting with former NBA star Dennis Rodman, preparations for missile tests, and a pronouncement ending the armistice and declaring a new state of war on the peninsula.  These threats were designed to test ROK President Park Guen-hye, who took office in February. Meanwhile, Seoul and Washington celebrated the one-year anniversary of the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement, agreed to a two-year extension of their civil nuclear agreement, and began preparations for special measures negotiations (a burden-sharing agreement for military forces).

US-ROK relations saw several significant events as 2012 ended. President Obama won his reelection against Republican contender Mitt Romney and South Korea had a historic election, with Park Geun-hye of the Saenuri Party being elected as the first female president in the country’s (and indeed East Asia’s) history.  Sandwiched between these elections, North Korea conducted a successful rocket launch, putting an object into orbit for the first time and marking a major milestone in its decades-long effort to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capability. Meanwhile, the US and ROK successfully concluded an agreement extending South Korean missile ranges, but remained deadlocked on the revision of a bilateral agreement on civilian nuclear energy.

In May, US-Korea relations were marked by nervousness about a potential crisis with North Korea as telltale signs of activity at Punggye suggested preparations for a third nuclear test.  Though a test did not occur, no one is confident that a crisis has been averted. In US-South Korea relations, differences over imports of Iran oil and US beef calmed down without causing a major hiccup. Meanwhile, a number of difficult bilateral negotiations remain unresolved.  While there are signs of progress on the New Missile Guidelines (NMG), the civil nuclear talks remain deadlocked.  Territorial and historical disputes between Japan and Korea have complicated and frustrated US desires to strengthen trilateral cooperation with South Korea and Japan.

The most significant news in early 2012 centered on North Korea’s rocket launch. In a slightly different twist, this latest provocation came just two weeks after reaching what seemed to be a new deal with the US to freeze its missile and nuclear programs in exchange for food assistance.  After Pyongyang went ahead with the launch in defiance of its international agreements and its so-called “Leap Day” deal with the US, it felt like Groundhog Day. The question soon became how soon a nuclear test might be in the offing.  Meanwhile, the KORUS FTA finally took effect after seven years of deliberation, and US sanctions on Iran and US beef imports in the ROK reemerged as issues for the relationship.

US - Korea

September — December 2011

Death of Kim Jong Il

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s state visit to the US was a big event that attested to the strength of the two countries’ relationship and the personal ties between Presidents Obama and Lee. The timely passage of the KORUS FTA in the US was the big deliverable for the summit. Final ratification of the FTA in both countries clears one longstanding issue and lays the foundation for greater economic integration and a stronger alliance. Meanwhile, the most shocking news for the final third of the year was the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in late December. His death disrupted US-DPRK bilateral talks as North Korea observed a mourning period for its late leader. The US and South Korea spent the last two weeks of December quietly watching developments in North Korea as the reclusive country accelerated its succession process to swiftly transfer power to the anointed successor, Kim Jong Un.

The summer months saw a potentially new cycle of US-DPRK dialogue. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s invitation to DPRK Vice-Minister Kim Kye Gwan to visit New York for two days of official talks raised the specter that the North may be ready for re-engagement. Meanwhile, South Korea named a new unification minister, which some perceive to be the harbinger of a shift in its North Korea policy. But reliable sources say that President Lee Myung-bak will not cave so easily on his principles. Elsewhere, the Korea-US free trade agreement remains in limbo as it remains caught in partisan strife within the legislatures of both countries and the US received another lesson in Korea’s preferred terminology for Asian geography.

US - Korea

January — April 2011

Under the Shadow of 2010

The US and South Korea continued strong solidarity and close policy coordination on North Korea in early 2011.  The US made repeated calls for North Korea to improve its relations with South Korea and show sincerity about denuclearization before the Six-Party Talks can resume.  The Hu Jintao visit to the US in January paved the way for the first inter-Korean talks since the Yeonpyeong shelling, although they collapsed on the second day as the two Koreas could not resolve their dispute over the sinking of the Cheonan. While inter-Korean dialogue stood at a standstill, the US and South Korea agreed to pursue a UNSC Presidential Statement that would denounce North Korea’s uranium enrichment program.  Possible resumption of US food aid and Jimmy Carter’s Pyongyang visit were new variables, although neither brought any change.  The good news is that the KORUS FTA looks to be near its long-awaited passage in the Congress. With both the Obama and Lee administrations making final efforts to clear all political barriers, it appears that the measure will be passed in both countries in the coming months.

US-Korea relations in the last quarter of 2010 centered around two major events. On the economic front, even though Presidents Barack Obama and Lee Myung-bak failed to seal a deal on the KORUS Free Trade Agreement (FTA) during their meeting on the margins of the G20 in Seoul, the two countries reached final agreement a few weeks later, potentially opening a new era in bilateral relations pending approval in the two legislatures. Meanwhile, North Korea’s revelation of its uranium enrichment facility and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island raised a real possibility of war on the peninsula. South Korea and the US once again demonstrated their strong security alliance and solidarity even at the risk of a military conflict. North Korea’s artillery attack quelled ongoing diplomatic efforts to resume the Six-Party Talks, as the prospect for early resumption vanished.

The sinking of the Cheonan remained the predominant issue in the US-ROK relationship as both countries spent the quarter coordinating and undertaking punitive measures against North Korea for its alleged attack on the ship.  The UN Security Council adopted a Presidential Statement condemning the attack but did not directly blame North Korea.  The US and the ROK held their first “Two-plus-Two” meeting in Seoul where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met Foreign Minster Yu Myung-hwan and Minister of National Defense Kim Tae-young. While countries reopened their dialogue channels in the hope of resuming the Six-Party Talks, there remain many challenges and uncertainties that make the future direction of the Talks unclear.  Several issues remain to be resolved on the KORUS FTA while negotiators are expected to hold a ministerial meeting soon to strike a deal.  The Chicago Council on Global Affairs released a report on US attitudes toward South Korea that highlighted public support for trade agreements, including the KORUS FTA, is lukewarm.  Among those who viewed fair trade as critical for US interests, support for KORUS was much stronger.

The second quarter saw a series of major events in US-ROK relations.  With the sinking of the Cheonan in late March, the quarter saw the possible return to armed conflict in Korea.  The North Korean torpedo attack on the South Korean warship caused the two Koreas to break ties, intensified the tension along the border, and blasted hopes for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks.  Meanwhile, the US-ROK alliance was at its zenith as the US showed solidarity with South Korea on its response to the provocation and put pressure on China to support a strong UN Security Council measure identifying North Korea as being responsible for the attack.  The two presidents announced a delay in transfer of wartime operational control and President Obama, in a surprise announcement on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Toronto, called for ratification of the KORUS FTA.  Though these two developments were not a direct result of the Cheonan sinking, they were influenced by a desire by both allies to show strong, deep partnership in the face of North Korean threats, and perhaps more important, by a personal chemistry between the two leaders that is unique in the history of the alliance.

The first quarter of 2010 set the stage for what should be a busy year in US-Korea relations.  The Six-Party Talks remain stalled, although dire conditions in the North may force Kim Jong-il back to negotiations soon. While North Korea continues to demand concessions before a return to talks, the US shows no sign of caving in.  In South Korea, there was a flurry of mixed signals on whether the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) to Seoul scheduled to be completed in 2012 would go ahead as planned.  Prospects for the US-ROK free trade agreement got a boost from President Obama and his administration, however, it remains uncertain when the deal will move to Congress for ratification. Finally, the issue of spent nuclear fuel reprocessing in South Korea has made its way to the forefront of US-Korea relations, where it will likely remain for some years.

US - Korea

October — December 2009

The New Old Reliable

The final quarter of 2009 included a number of significant developments in US-Korea ties. President Barack Obama made his first trip to Seoul in November, and Special Envoy for North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth traveled to Pyongyang in December.  The summit between Presidents Obama and Lee Myung-bak marked the continuation of an historical high in relations between the two countries.  On issues affecting the alliance, Obama and Lee found common ground on North Korea, while they inched forward with the Korea-US free trade agreement.  Meanwhile, Bosworth’s three days of talks with North Korean officials brought the most encouraging signs of a return to the six-party process since talks broke down at the end of 2008.  The Obama administration is faring well on the Korean Peninsula, even as relations with other major powers of the region become more complicated.  Those accompanying Obama on his trip to Asia informally acknowledged that Korea was the “best stop” on the trip and sensed a personal connection between the two leaders.

The quarter saw a good deal of U.S.-Korea activity, largely the result of several trips by high-level U.S. officials to the region.  While extended deterrence was a major topic of conversation between the allies, Washington and Seoul also coordinated policy on North Korea with some indication that groundwork for reengagement in nuclear negotiations may be in the offing.  Former President Bill Clinton’s surprise visit to the North was successful in achieving the return of detained U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee.

The quarter saw a plethora of provocations by North Korea, ranging from ballistic missiles tests to the country’s second (and more successful) nuclear test.  The United Nations Security Council responded with Resolution 1874 that called for financial sanctions and the institutionalization of a counterproliferation regime that would have made John Bolton proud.  The U.S. and ROK presidents held their first summit amidst all this noise and sent clear signals of alliance solidarity.  Washington exhibited the closeness of the alliance, being the only country to send a presidential delegation to the funeral of former President Roh Moo-hyun.  These rhetorical demonstrations of the alliance’s strength, however, cannot drown out the potential substantive setback to the alliance as the KORUS Free Trade Agreement continues to languish.

The quarter ended with the question of whether President Obama’s first late-night crisis phone call – the metric for leadership bandied about during the campaign – would be over a ballistic missile test by North Korea.  The suspenseful end to the quarter contrasted with its quiet start where the focus of U.S.-ROK bilateral relations was on initial contacts between the Lee and Obama administration teams and policy coordination over the global financial crisis, while the North Korea missile launch issue slowly but steadily moved from a simmer to a slow boil.   However events unfold, the launch itself gives the new administration its first taste of North Korean bad behavior and confronts it with the problem of finding the right balance between under- and over-reaction that is needed to move denuclearization negotiations forward.

US - Korea

October — December 2008

Obama’s Korea Inheritance

The last four months of U.S.-ROK relations under the Bush administration saw the completion of a mission that helped to define the broadening global scope of the alliance as well as the final resolution of the troublesome “beef issue.”  Tough negotiations were completed on a new defense cost-sharing agreement and the ruling party in the ROK began the process of passing the implementing legislation for the free trade agreement.  All of this amounts to President Obama’s inheritance of an alliance relationship that is in fairly strong shape, but a North Korean nuclear negotiation that remains unfinished.  Despite the best efforts of the U.S., Pyongyang remained unwilling to accept standard verification procedures as part of the six-party denuclearization agreement.  This was despite the fact that on Oct. 11, the U.S. removed the country from the terrorism blacklist.  Obama’s team will need to adhere to seven key principles as it continues to navigate the labyrinth of these difficult negotiations and bolster the strength of the alliance.

US - Korea

July 2017 — September 2008

Déjà vu All Over Again?

The big news in the penultimate quarter of 2008 centered on leadership ills (literally) in North Korea and Pyongyang’s rolling back of the six-party denuclearization agreement.  On the U.S.-ROK front, President George W. Bush made his last trip to Asia of his presidency, stopping for a brief visit in South Korea on his way to the Beijing Olympics.  While the free trade agreement (FTA) remains mired in U.S. domestic politics, important low-key agreements were reached to help bolster the people-to-people aspects of the alliance. As the quarter ended, the Bush administration was making preparations to make what some described as a last ditch effort to salvage the aid-for-denuclearization deal with North Korea by sending Six-Party Talks negotiator Christopher Hill to Pyongyang for a third time.

The quarter started off well with the first meeting of Presidents George W. Bush and Lee Myung-bak at Camp David in April.   The two leaders emphasized common values and the global scope of the alliance.  They reached an agreement to maintain current U.S. troop levels on the Peninsula, which appeared to be an attempt by conservatives in Seoul to reverse the unfortunate trend they saw during the Roh-Rumsfeld era where each side was perceived as whittling away at the foundations of the alliance for disparate reasons.  An important but understated accomplishment was Bush’s public support of Lee’s request to upgrade the ROK’s foreign military sales status.  Should this request be approved by the Congress, it would amount to a substantial upgrading of the bilateral alliance relationship as it would give Seoul access to a wider range of U.S. military technologies similar to what NATO and other allies like Australia enjoy.  Finally, the two governments inked a memorandum of understanding on security improvements necessary to enable the ROK’s entry to the U.S. visa waiver program.

US - Korea

January — March 2008

A New Day

The major event of the first quarter of 2008 was the inauguration of a new government in South Korea.  The Lee Myung-bak government offered some initial signals of the types of policies it intends to pursue both on and off the peninsula.  While there is much that was accomplished under the Roh Moo-hyun government in U.S.-ROK relations, most experts agree that the overall tone between the new Lee government and the Bush administration will improve considerably.  Meanwhile, U.S.-DPRK relations in the context of the Six-Party Talks remain stuck on completing the second phase of the denuclearization agreement, despite some audibles by the U.S. team in conjunction with the Chinese.  While we may be in the first quarter of the year, it may be the last quarter for the six-party process absent any progress.

Japan - Korea

July — September 2004

Nuclear Sea of Fire

Tokyo joined the ranks of cities (including Los Angeles and Seoul) bestowed with the dubious distinction of being threatened with being turned into a nuclear sea of fire by the DPRK.  This rhetoric, often chalked up to harmless bluster, reflected real tension this quarter over a possible DPRK missile test and continued stalemates on the abductee dispute.  Tokyo’s relations with Seoul were capped this quarter by a summit.  Good relations at the highest levels, however, still could not overcome history issues and potentially tectonic shifts in the character of relations.

The big news for the quarter was the May summit between Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Contrary to the pundits’ assessment, the results of this summit were not half-bad (and not fully appreciated until after the six-party talks in June).  They represented moderate successes for a U.S.-Japan strategy of engaging North Korea from a position of strength, not weakness.

Japan-DPRK relations show no progress on abductions.  In the meantime, the Japanese have passed new sanctions legislation as a birthday gift to Kim Jong-il. Japan-South Korea free trade agreement (FTA) talks gain momentum, as do historical animosities.  Finally, the quarter saw Japanese and South Korean contributions to the Iraq reconstruction effort. The size and substance of this support show that the scope of both these American alliances in Asia has effectively expanded beyond Asia to embrace global issues of common interest.

The real action in Japan-South Korea relations this past quarter was not over North Korea but in the realm of economics and culture where a number of positive developments emerged. Meanwhile, the protracted nadir in Japan-North Korea relations has permanent, lasting effects on Japan’s future security profile in the region.

Last September, Japan-DPRK relations looked to have made a major breakthrough with the unprecedented visit of Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro to Pyongyang.  Rodong Sinmun marked the anniversary this year by warning about an “unavoidable” war between the DPRK and Japan. The Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG) remained active this quarter prior to and in the aftermath of the six-party talks over the DPRK’s nuclear weapons. Japan played a “starring role” in Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) exercises in the Coral Sea.

We are under threat ourselves from another terrorist state, North Korea, which has kidnapped 150 of our citizens. 150 people! I don’t think any of them are alive. Pyongyang is also sending boatloads of drugs to Japan to harm our youngsters, and it has missiles ready to hit 15 Japanese cities. What other country would tolerate this?…You mean the Sunshine Policy? Do you really think the policies of Kim Dae-jung were working? (All throughout), the North was becoming more dangerous. This is the country that says it is ready to deliver a ‘sea of fire’ over Japan.

 Tokyo Gov. Ishihara Shintaro

The quarter saw Japan implement its own version of the Bush administration’s “containment lite” policy toward North Korea, inspecting and detaining DPRK vessels. Pyongyang accused Tokyo of taking the first step to sanctions (which North Korea equates with war).  Japan responded to the North’s bluster not by cowering but by making serious steps toward a robust missile defense system as well as toward emergency security legislation that would give the government the power to respond to military crises.  Meanwhile, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun did his own rendition of a Madison Avenue-type media blitz of Japan, leaving summit observers with some choice memories of his off-the-cuff style.

The quarter saw no major bumps in Japan-South Korea relations as the two countries awaited the transition to the new Roh Moo-hyun government in the ROK. North Korean provocations during the quarter had a unifying effect on Seoul-Tokyo ties.  They also raise the question of exactly what Japan would do if the North undertook any of the actions associated with crossing the “red line.” Accordingly, we look at what Japanese sanctions against the North might look like.

Do crises bring allies together or drive them apart?  The nuclear weapons “crisis” with North Korea put this question to the test this past quarter.  Trilateral coordination among Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo operated in overdrive as the three allies reacted to the revelations of North Korean nuclear intransigence, producing mixed results.  On the bilateral fronts, Japan-DPRK relations soured this quarter about as much as they had sweetened with the Koizumi summit in Pyongyang in September, over the very same issue: abductions.  Meanwhile, the Japanese wait nervously for the incoming Roh Moo-hyun government, virtually ignorant of the South Korean president-elect’s views on Seoul-Tokyo relations.

The big news for the quarter was Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s meeting with DPRK leader Kim Jong-Il on Sept. 17. The two-and-a-half hours of discussions between the two leaders were described by officials as “frank talks” on difficult issues of concern to both sides.  Tokyo went into the summit with a fairly stern attitude.  In pre-summit negotiations at the end of August, the Japanese established up front that they wanted a satisfactory and definitive accounting by the North Koreans on the unresolved claim of past abducted Japanese nationals.  In a break from Japan-DPRK agendas, Tokyo also wanted the North to address security issues in the Dear Leader’s meeting with Koizumi (including missiles, the 1994 Agreed Framework, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the North-South Basic Agreement), and moreover maintained that there would be no explicit in-kind compensation of any sort by Japan for this meeting.

The story of the quarter was Japan’s re-engagement with the two Koreas on several levels. For Seoul-Tokyo relations, the World Cup soccer matches overshadowed important, but quiet, efforts at resuming bilateral security dialogue. For Tokyo-Pyongyang relations, baby steps toward resuming long-suspended normalization talks appear to have been made.  Finally, the impact of the World Cup and sports diplomacy on Japan-South Korea relations is not to be underestimated.

Though the 2002 Cup did not mark modernity for either already-modern country, the Cup’s success was in no small part a function of the fact that it was hosted by two of the more advanced, market-savvy, globalized, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, open-society countries in Asia.  This not only gave the games a luster not easily tarnished, but it also is a lasting image for Japan-South Korea cooperation.   Not bad for a null outcome.

Japanese Emperor Akihito will not be attending the opening ceremony of the World Cup soccer games in Seoul on May 31, but this hardly dampened a very strong quarter in Japan-South Korea relations.  A glimmer of light shone on long-frozen normalization dialogue between Japan and North Korea, but Pyongyang’s tactical motives do not raise confidence that a thaw is evident.  Prospects were least bright this quarter in trilateral policy coordination involving the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

The big news for the past quarter was the improvements in Seoul-Tokyo ties after months of controversy over history-related issues.  While Japan-ROK relations appear to be back on track, Tokyo-Pyongyang relations veered badly off course following failed attempts to jump-start normalization talks; financial scandals involving the pro-DPRK Chosen Soren organization in Japan; and an altercation at sea. U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral coordination proceeded apace with American prosecution of the war against terrorism in Southwest Asia as one of the major topics of discussion.

Japan - Korea

July — September 2001


The quarter’s events were obfuscated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.  Seoul and Tokyo responded to the horrific events with statements of support for America’s anti-terrorism campaign.  On the bilateral fronts, Japan-South Korea relations continued their downward spiral from last quarter because of history-related disputes with little hope of resolution in sight. Japan-North Korea relations remain dead in the water.  Is there any good news?  Not really.  But being the perpetual optimist, this column notes some interesting developments that shed light on an otherwise gloomy quarter.