On January 20, local time, Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States. In his inaugural speech, President Trump made clear his intention to put “America First.” The America First-ism he pledged since his campaign days as a presidential candidate has now become his official stance as a president, heralding big changes to the global order, as well as to the state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula. Hong Hyun-ik (홍현익), a Senior Research Fellow at Sejong Institute, explains.

It may influence the Korea-U.S. alliance as a whole since international politics, securities and defense sectors will be impacted. The influence on Korea is likely to be significant in terms of trade issues such as the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. Another factor that may influence Korea-U.S. relations is that President Trump is expected to have closer relations with Russia than President Obama, while his policies on China are expected to be much harsher and oppressive. Changes in the U.S.-China relations mean changes in the security situation surrounding the Korean Peninsula, which would affect relations between North Korea and China, as well as that of South Korea and China. We must stay updated on President Trump’s new basic foreign policy as it may result in important changes in Korea’s foreign policies as well as in Seoul’s North Korea policies.

Immediately after President Trump’s inauguration, the White House revealed through its website the top six issues the government plans to address, including the military, foreign policy, trade, jobs, energy and law enforcement. In particular, in the military section, the Trump Administration said that it plans to make the American military strong again, stressing that it will develop a state-of-the-art missile defense system to protect against missile-based attacks from states like Iran and North Korea. The fact that the Trump Administration mentioned North Korean nuclear missiles and its measures against the threats on Trump’s first day in office could mean that the new government recognizes North Korea’s nuclear arms as a serious threat. It is also considered a clear assertion of the Trump Administration’s intention to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue in a strong and aggressive manner.

The North Korean issue is discussed in the defense section instead of the foreign policy section. The White House is stressing the threats of North Korea’s missiles along with those of Iran, adding that it will develop missile defense systems to protect against attacks. As a presidential candidate, Trump said that missile defense systems are obsolete, claiming that they are not cost-effective. But now that North Korea’s missile threats are heightened and the U.S. is antagonizing China, the government is saying that it will develop new defense systems for protection. The pledge is part of the defense plans, which is one of six major issues the White House promises to address. This is drawing much attention and also raising concerns, as it shows that the Trump Administration may approach the North Korean nuclear issue militarily, instead of finding diplomatic solutions.

On January 1, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in his New Year’s state message said that his country is in the last stage of preparation for testing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), raising concerns of potential military provocations. Experts have compared North Korea’s ICBM and the U.S.’s MD systems as spears and shields. With the Trump Administration’s pledge to develop new MD systems, conflict is forecast for the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea has said that it is close to testing a long range missile that can reach the United States, and in response, the U.S. has said on the White House website that it will develop a missile defense system to protect itself. However, China believes that such an MD system is meant to not only block North Korea’s missiles, but to also counter a short to medium range missile that China may fire toward Japan in a potential conflict. China is already strongly opposed to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or THAAD deployment in South Korea. Developing and deploying another new MD system might add more strains to the already thorny relations between the U.S. and China. Another factor we should not forget is that China is not the only country opposing the U.S.’s development of MD systems. Russia is also against such moves. We must keep a close eye on the situation, as conflict among the U.S., China and Russia may lead to the restructuring of a new Cold War order.

Around the time of President Trump’s inauguration, North Korea’s official news channels focused on its leader Kim Jong Un’s activities, including a visit to a military base. The news of the new American president was delivered in short reports without any special editorials or commentary. On January 23, the North’s Rodong Sinmun published an article on the party and the government’s foreign policy, saying that it will “continuously strengthen self-defense power and pre-emptive strikes centered on nuclear power.”

The North’s reaction is interesting. Around the time of Trump’s inauguration on January 20, local time, Kim Jong Un placed North Korea’s Ministry of People’s Armed Forces on “combat mobilization readiness.” It hinted that Kim Jong Un may be fearing Trump’s inauguration. In addition, Trump’s inauguration was briefly mentioned in the Rodong Sinmun. While there was no commentary or statement, it’s unusual even for North Korea to report on an American president’s inauguration. On January 23, a Rodong Sinmun article claimed that the North has been cooperative with other nations, and that it will stick to an independent foreign policy. It appears that the article was meant to target the new Trump Administration, warning that if the U.S. does not seek ways to communicate and negotiate with the North, it has to continue to actively develop its nuclear arms and missiles.

Changes to Korea-U.S. relations as well as the political situation in Northeast Asia surrounding the Korean Peninsula had been expected since Trump’s election. While the Trump Administration’s policy on the Korean Peninsula remains shrouded, the general consensus is that the basic framework of the existing Korea-U.S. alliance will be maintained.

Considering the developments so far, it’s worrisome that the relationship between the U.S. and China is expected to become even more strained than it had been under the Obama Administration. The fact is, the Trump Administration has to keep a watchful eye on China’s emergence as a superpower, and the Korea-U.S. alliance cannot help but be magnified under such circumstances. So as long as the Korean government wields its negotiating capabilities well, I believe that Korea-U.S. relations will not face any big problems. Currently, the biggest concerns are that America’s allies in Europe are struggling under Trump’s pressure to increase their defense budgets extensively and that the fate of NATO is now murky. On the other hand, the Korea-U.S. alliance is generally expected to remain intact.

The geography of international relations is faced with major changes since the inauguration of President Trump. Korea must tighten its grip on both security and economy. It’s time for Korea to practice aggressive diplomacy in order to maintain its strategic relations with the U.S. as well as with China.

[Interview] Defector Successfully Resettles as a Florist

A rice cake store in the Mapo-gu District of Seoul is run by its owner Kim Ji-hyun (김지현) who defected from North Korea in 1999. The rice cake store, “Chongjin (청진) Fortune Rice Cake Workshop,” is named after her hometown of Chongjin, North Korea.

I named the store after my hometown of Chongjin, and I called it a workshop since classes are held here as well. I was surprised that people asked if we had these kinds of rice cakes in North Korea too. I spoke to ladies in their 50s and 60s, and it sounds like people in the North and South ate the same way in the past. We are of the same roots, after all. I wanted to let the people of South Korea know that there are famous and delicious rice cakes in North Korea too. That’s why I named the store after my hometown.

Chongjin Fortune Rice Cake Workshop sells North Korean traditional rice cakes. It’s owner Ji-hyun says that she makes the rice cakes just the way her mother used to back in North Korea.

I never learned to make North Korean rice cakes. I just saw my mother make them when I was little, and I used to make and eat them back home too. My mom often made songpyeon (송편) for me. In spring, every household would gather mugwort and make mugwort rice cake. Rice cakes made with perilla leaves on each side are so fragrant. Mom used to make steamed white rice cake often too. Here, people put red beans on it, but in the North, we put peas on it.

Songpeyon (송편), simtteok (심떡), mochi (모찌), jeolpyeon (절편)… Some North Korean rice cakes share the name with those in South Korea but are made with different ingredients, while others are identical yet known by different names on each side of the border. Most customers at the rice cake store are North Korean defectors who miss the taste of their homes. But these days, there are also many customers who simply like the North Korean style rice cakes.

W1) It tastes good. It’s handmade, chewy and delicious. The difference is that North Korean rice cakes tend to be less salty.
W2) I ordered rice cakes from this store and was delicious. I think it was a traditional North Korean rice cake. It was wonderful and tasty. They also sell pumpkin sikhye (식혜) or rice drinks. The sikhye’s really delicious.

With Korea’s biggest holiday Seollal just around the corner, the number of people visiting the rice cake store is exceptionally high, making Ji-hyun busier than ever. But even in the midst of all the busy work, Ji-hyun sometimes finds herself lost in thought, reminiscing about Seollal back home in the North. While it’s largely the same in the North as it is in the South with people traveling all over the country to get together to share love and food with relatives, there is a bit of a difference when it comes to the two Koreas’ customs involving rice cakes.

In South Korea, people eat tteokguk (떡국) or rice cake soup on New Year’s Day, and songpyeon (송편) on Chuseok. But in North Korea, we make rice cakes at home on both Seollal and Chuseok, according to each family’s tradition. It could be songpyeon, it could be jeolpyeon (절편), or it could be glutinous rice cakes. There are no set customs. There are also no mills in North Korea where people can order rice cakes just by paying money or providing the rice. Instead, small and medium business administrations would allow their workers to use the rice powder machines. They would then charge outsiders a small fee to bring rice to pound it into powder. So before holidays, each family would bring rice to turn it into powder. That’s the holiday scene – people waiting in line until midnight and even 1a.m. to make rice powder. Then, with the rice powder, mothers would make the rice cakes over night at home, prepare for the memorial rites, and all the family members would gather around to eat together in the morning. When I was little, these holidays were the best. Whether it was Seolal or Chuseok, we could eat all different sorts of rice cakes and other foods.

One of the dishes that is always included on the table during Seollal is tteokguk (떡국) or rice cake soup. Every year, family members eat tteokguk together and share New Year’s blessings with one another to kick start the new year. While the tteokguk we’re familiar with is a clear soup with slices of slightly dried white rice cake, North Korea’s tteokguk is a bit different.

I’ve never had tteokguk in North Korea. I know that some families would sometimes eat rice cake soup with dumplings near the end of the holidays, but I’ve never had tteokguk back home. The dish itself is quite different. There are no sliced dried rice cakes. We would mix rice powder with hot water and make small, round dough to put in soup, but never slice dried long rice cakes. We also use many different types of soup. It could be pork broth or chicken broth, or anything we like. Anchovies are rare in North Korea because they are caught in the West Sea. So we don’t use them to make soup.

This time of the year is when the longings for home and the absence of the family are felt the strongest. Making the holiday staple rice cakes encourages Ji-hyun feelings of homesickness. She consoles her heart by dreaming of introducing South Korean rice cakes in the North someday, just as she is introducing traditional North Korean rice cakes here in the South now.

It would probably only take 4 to 5 hours to get to Chongjin from here. It’s painful that I can’t go. When the two Koreas are reunited, I want to go back to the North and make South Korean style rice cakes. I want to open a South Korean style mill and bring the latest rice-cake making machines to my hometown. I want to let the people of my hometown know what South Korean rice cakes taste like.

Hopefully it won’t be long before the families separated by the border will be able to get together to share their love and rice cakes during the holidays.