In many ways, now in office, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in is pursuing the more independent stance he promised while on the campaign trail.
With talk of returning wartime operational control (OPCON) from the U.S. and the full deployment of the THAAD missile defense system put on hold – ostensibly for environmental reasons – Moon’s reported belief that South Korea should learn to say “no” to the U.S. does appear, to some extent, to be being reflected in policy.
But one South Korean professor in the field of the U.S. relations with the two Koreas suggests Seoul sees the OPCON transfer as potentially having another use: as a “diplomatic card” to break the deadlock with China over disagreements over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery.
Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at Department of America Studies at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security (IFANS) under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-run Korea National Diplomatic Academy (KNDA), says South Korea must hold talks with China while drawing a link between the transfer of the wartime OPCON and the THAAD deployment – perhaps in a like for like exchange.
Moon has pledged to regain wartime OPCON, but Kim says the transfer would mean the disbanding of the Combined Forces Command (CFC), long a core element of the U.S. – ROK alliance and South Korea and the U.S. maintaining an alliance more like that between Japan and Washington, who have separate command systems.
China has long felt “uncomfortable” about the U.S. taking wartime military control for South Korea, Kim told NK News in mid-June, as it contributes to Beijing’s perception that the South Korean military is “on the same side” as the U.S. and “cooperating with U.S. moves to intervene in the Asia.”
The greatest risk the Moon administration faces is what’s known in the ROK as “Korea passing”
Kim argues the transfer of the wartime OPCON means that “the alliance will become looser from the Chinese perspective.”
“South Korea can use the issue of OPCON transfer as a ‘significant diplomatic card’ calling for China to accept the THAAD deployment in exchange for the OPCON transfer,” Kim argues.
“I believe the South has a lot of diplomatic cards, but we too often leave them idle such as the THAAD deployment. We got nothing from the U.S. when making a decision on the deployment and accepting the proposal without conditions.”
Kim says that the U.S. will not “strongly oppose” the South’s regaining of the wartime OPCON and doesn’t think such a deal would negatively affect the alliance.
The South took back the peacetime operational control in 1994, and the Bush administration agreed to transfer the OPCON on April 17, 2012 in February 2007. In June 2010, then-South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Barack Obama reached a deal to delay the transfer of OPCON until 2015, a decision which was then delayed further by the Park Geun-hye administration in October 2014. Moon has pledged to do it soon.
The greatest risk the Moon administration faces is what’s known in the ROK as “Korea passing”, the fear that, in the age of Trump, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong Un, South Korea will find itself an irrelevancy.
And among the various issues that the ROK faces, the controversial deployment of the THAAD seems the most likely cause of this: delay it too long and be sidelined by the U.S., refuse to commit to dismantling it and face the wrath of Beijing. Do neither, and you alienate both.
“I don’t think [the delay] means the reversal of the THAAD deployment,” Kim tells NK News, while emphasizing that continuing to flip-flop could have serious consequences for the ROK-U.S. Alliance.
It’s been one year since the U.S. and the South Korean military announced the deployment of the THAAD battery, and there is still significant domestic opposition to the move: around 3,000 South Koreans held a rally and surrounded the U.S. embassy in Seoul on June 25 in opposition to the decision.
Kim argues that a conflict between the U.S. and China is “highly likely”
Moon is known to sympathize with these anti-THAAD sentiments, and his election raised concerns of a split, both within his own government and within the U.S.-ROK alliance: it happened during the Roh administration, and it could happen again.
But Kim says this is unlikely: Moon’s has a “reduced contribution of ideologists” in his new diplomatic-security cabinet compared to previous liberal governments.
“Many professionals and specialists are tapped instead, and this means that [the Moon administration] can be comparatively free from the discord with the U.S,” the professor says.
“I think there is a higher chance that the U.S. and the South move together as they will look at the diplomatic reality of Northeast Asia and the Korean peninsula and conduct a pragmatic and realistic approach.”
BETWEEN A ROK AND A HARD PLACE
But while Kim has high hopes for bilateral relations between Washington and Seoul, he casts doubt on the Trump administration’s policy toward North Korea.
“The Trump administration doesn’t have any brilliant ideas,” he says.
The current U.S. government has pushed ahead with tougher sanctions and put more emphasis on China’s ability to use its leverage in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.
But Kim argues that a conflict between the U.S. and China is “highly likely” if the U.S. President Donald Trump judges that China is not trying hard enough to curb North Korea and if Chinese President Xi Jinping pushes forward with a strong foreign policy.
He also harbors suspicions against China’s willingness to significantly tighten pressure on North Korea and close loopholes in UN sanctions.
There are two options for the U.S.: either recognize the North as a de facto nuclear weapons state or attempt to initiate regime change. Kim says it will be still “difficult” for the U.S. to choose the first option.
“Although the U.S. says they won’t pursue regime change, that’s a stance to induce the North’s denuclearization,” Kim says.
“But as soon as the U.S. recognizes Pyongyang as a nuclear weapons state, cracks will appear in U.S. alliances in Asia,” he continues. “In the end, the alliances in Northeast Asia – which is the U.S. significant policy tool to intervene in the Asian region and bash China – will get into a mess.”
“Therefore, the U.S. stance is that there is no option but regime change.”
“As soon as the U.S. recognizes Pyongyang as a nuclear weapons state, cracks will appear in U.S. alliances in Asia”
Kim considers there to be a slim chance of bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang, especially considering the Trump administration’s emphasis on pressure.
“They haven’t even clarified whether the prerequisite is a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests or freezing nuclear development by extension.”
The death of the U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier and the DPRK’s recent successful ICBM test has sparked widespread anger against the North in the U.S., and this puts Trump in a difficult position.
“The Trump administration doesn’t have any brilliant ideas”
Trump has personalized the issue of North Korea with his tweets that an ICBM test “won’t happen”, and Kim says it has become a “priority” for the Trump administration.
“U.S. foreign policy is multifaceted and therefore the North Korean issue will remain the priority in spite of the problems in Iran and the Middle East,” he says.
Kim suggests two scenarios: the first one is to “strongly bash” China by labeling Beijing as a currency manipulator, fixing trade deficits or imposing further secondary sanctions if diplomacy does not yield results. The second option would be to prevent further North Korean missile tests by intercepting them in flight.
“There is nothing besides those options,” Kim says. “But I think the Trump administration’s policy toward North Korea will eventually fail: North Korea will continue to develop missiles and nuclear weapons in spite of the strong pressure.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: South Korean government
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