South Korea elected a new president, Moon Jae-in, on May 9th, after months of build-up and amid growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The new President faces a complex balancing act: on the campaign trail, he promised to expand inter-Korean relations, pledging to sign a peace treaty with the North and reopening shuttered economic cooperation projects – all plans that may clash with the more hardline administration of Donald Trump.
But Moon also faces pressure from China. South Korea has moderately friendly, if sometimes tense, ties with Beijing: not least because of the sheer volume of trade between the two nations, and the two have often found themselves clashing over what to do about North Korea.
Moon takes over the Blue House at a tricky time for South Korea – China relations: Beijing is frustrated with South Korea’s deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system, and the failure to slow Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile program has led to anger in Seoul over China’s continued support for the Kim government.
So what will relations look like going forward? A week before Moon’s election, NK News talked to Seong-Hyon Lee, a research fellow at Seoul’s Sejong Institute and a former journalist in China, to discuss the clash between China and the U.S. over hegemony in Asia, China’s coal embargo, North Korea’s nuclear power, Trump’s unpredictability, and China’s likely response to THAAD deployment.
NK News: China’s decision to stop all coal imports in February surprised many observers. Why do you think China’s decided to go ahead with the embargo?
Seong-Hyon Lee: China has agreed to the UN resolution 2321 to limit its imports from North Korea. China’s coal embargo was enforced because it reached the UN limit in January. Therefore, it was a necessary measure in line with the UN sanctions, rather than a sudden harsh stance on North Korea.
NK News: On nuclear issues, will China take measures to cooperate with the U.S. on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula?
Seong-Hyon Lee: China considers North Korea its strategic point in Asia Pacific. Vietnam has already sided with the U.S. and Myanmar is gradually opening its door to capitalism. North Korea is the only country that China can team up with to oppose U.S. expansion in the Asia Pacific.
China has insisted on three principles on dealing with the Korean Peninsula for 10 years: denuclearization, stability, and engagement. Although China insists on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it seems to have accepted North Korea as a nuclear power. China knows North Korea will not target it, and attack South Korea, Japan or the U.S. instead.
To China, North Korea’s continued provocations is merely an inconvenience – not a threat.
NK News: What are the consequences if North Korea doesn’t give up its nuclear weapons?
Seong-Hyon Lee: Nuclear weapons don’t project an immediate threat to the U.S. What matters is an ICBM that can strike the U.S. mainland. Once North Korea can put an ICBM to practical use, it’s possible that Trump will strike North Korea. Trump is said to be even more unpredictable and mad than Kim Jong Un. It’s a madman theory we have to consider.
A more practical approach than denuclearization is to freeze the nuclear development in North Korea. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense William J. Perry once said “it’s too late” to prevent nuclear development in North Korea: North Korea considers nuclear development as its core strategy to survive.
“To China, North Korea’s continued provocations is merely inconvenience and noise”
China has already internally admitted that North Korea possesses nuclear weapons. If the U.S. continues to insist on denuclearization of North Korea as a premise for engagement, nothing much can be expected to be resolved. The two sides must be able to compromise with each other to freeze any further development.
NK News: In recent months we’ve seen retaliation by China against South Korean companies in response to the deployment of THAAD. Does this represent a realignment of China back to North Korea?
Seong-Hyon Lee: The roots of the THAAD issue lie in strategic distrust and strategic balance between the U.S. and China in the Asia-Pacific. China opposes THAAD because it strengthens the U.S. pivot to Asia, which aims to concentrate 60% of its naval forces in Asia.
The South China Sea dispute is related to this. China declared the South China Sea to be its “core interest” in 2010, and the region is critical to Xi Jinping’s “One Belt One Road” initiative. Neither the U.S. and China is going to yield hegemony in Asia to the other.
“South Korea needs to take a lead towards unification. Outsourcing to the superpowers is not a way to survive”
THAAD is another threat posed by the U.S. to China’s desire for hegemony in Asia, as is the trilateral military alliance between the U.S.-South Korea-Japan. As long as the U.S. and China can’t compromise over who is the dominant superpower in Asia, the conflict between the two is going to continue, and North Korea’s nuclear power will increase.
NK News: How should South Korea react wisely?
Seong-Hyon Lee: Withdrawal of THAAD should not be considered as a solution, as it will destroy U.S.-Korea alliance and damage South Korea’s reputation.
Xi Jinping is personally upset, and a summit meeting is the only way out. President Moon must recover China’s trust, and the President should make it clear in a summit meeting that THAAD only targets North Korean missiles, not China. Also, deploying only one unit of THAAD, instead of two or three units, could relieve China’s anger.
The good news is that China has revealed that it likes President Moon. Moon will have to balance between the U.S. and China to secure South Korea’s interests, by reinforcing the U.S.-ROK alliance while at the same time developing strained relations with China.
NK News: What could be done to increase the possibility of reunification of the Korean peninsula?
Seong-Hyon Lee: South Korea needs to take a lead on unification. Outsourcing to superpowers is not a way to survive. South Korea should approach a deal with North Korea flexibly, using both carrots and sticks.
“North Korea is the only country that China can team up with to oppose U.S. expansion in the Asia Pacific”
South Korea should persuade China and the U.S. to support unification, emphasizing the benefits it will bring to the two countries. China can take benefits from developing the border area with North Korea, such as Jilin and Harbin. Those areas are currently seriously underdeveloped, due to security issues that hinder investments.
The U.S. should acknowledge that since South Korea is more developed than its northern neighbor and has a larger population, and it’s likely that a united Korean peninsula will be a U.S. ally. As an ally, South Korea could suggest joint discovery rights to the North Korea’s rich underground resources. By giving the two superpowers incentives for reunification, South Korea could gain support for potential reunification.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Moon Jae-in’s Facebook
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Featured Image: 江陽駅강양역Kangyang by 哈局巡道工 on 2012-05-05 09:25:33