Park heads to Russia, China at a delicate time

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Park heads to Russia, China at a delicate time

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Chinese President Xi Jinping, third from right, Russian President Vladimir Putin, fourth from right, and Korean President Park Geun-hye, fifth from right, give an ovation during a military parade in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2015. [AP/NEWSIS]

President Park Geun-hye is playing diplomat-in-chief this month, heading to Russia for a summit with President Vladimir Putin on Sept. 2 and 3 and then to China on Sept. 4 and 5 for a Group of 20 meeting.

Russia and China have vociferously opposed Seoul’s decision to deploy the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system, saying it goes against their national security interests. Lim Sung-nam, Korea’s first vice minister of foreign affairs, was scheduled to hold talks with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin Thursday ahead of the upcoming G-20 leaders’ summit in Hangzhou, China. There was interest to see if he would be able to arrange talks between President Park and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G-20 summit.

The JoongAng Ilbo surveyed and interviewed 31 Korean foreign affairs and security experts between Aug. 21 and 29 ahead of the upcoming summits and asked them about the Thaad issue.

When asked to grade whether Korean diplomacy was in a crisis, with 10 indicating it was a major crisis and 0 indicating there was no crisis, 26 analysts, or 83.9 percent, gave a score of six or higher.

The average score was 7.2.

The paper last year conducted a similar survey of 31 Korean and foreign experts; at that time, the average score was 5.8, with 67.7 percent of respondents indicating Korean foreign affairs were in a crisis.

When asked to name the toughest diplomatic or security issue Seoul faces, 43.9 percent responded, “Coming up with an effective plan to deter North Korea’s acceleration of its nuclear and missile capabilities during blocked North-South relations.”

This was followed by 34.1 percent who answered, “Managing the Korea-U.S. alliance amid China and the United States’ growing confrontation.”

Coming in third at 19.5 percent was worsening Korea-China relations following Seoul’s decision to deploy the Thaad system.

Following Seoul’s decision to deploy the Thaad system, there has been increased tensions between Korea and China, following a period in which they were described as the best-ever. Beijing and Washington are at odds over the East China Sea and South China Sea issues.

Moon Chung-in, a distinguished professor emeritus of political science of Yonsei University, called the current moment a tipping point.

“Beijing sees the Thaad system as the United States’ new regional strategy to put pressure on China,” he said. “It sees Korea as knowing this and still accepting it, leading to a difficult situation.”

The analysts were asked if after the deployment of Thaad, there be a return to a security structure of South Korea-U.S.-Japan vs. North Korea-China-Russia. To this, the analysts were almost evenly divided, with 16 replying yes and 15 replying no.

With Korea at a diplomatic crossroad, analysts advised it to be less passive and take an active approach to foreign affairs.

China expert Lee Hee-ok, director of the Institute of National Grand Strategy at Sungkyunkwan University, said that, “With the situation changing with the Thaad issue, within the next seven or eight years, Chinese and U.S. relations will be set in a frame of cooperation or conflict, and we need to come up with a plan before then.”

He continued, “When the board is already turning, a top has to be spun even faster for it not to falter. There is a need for diplomatic strategy that takes advantage of the appropriate timing.”

Analysts pointed to a case of aggressive and active diplomacy when the Korean government decided to build a naval base on Jeju Island, a route to the East China Sea, which led to backlash from China, which was concerned about U.S. military vessels lurking in the area.

In June 2007, President Roh Moo-hyun stood firm and stated at a forum, “Without armaments, peace cannot be protected.” He said that a naval base on Jeju was “needed for peace.”

Moon said, “This was an issue that China could protest as much as Thaad, but because we continually explained that this was for peace rather than the Korea-U.S. alliance, it did not become a diplomatic problem.”

“Korea and China are needed by each other,” said Kim Heung-kyu, a political science professor at Ajou University. “If bilateral relations are blocked in security matters, we need to actively shake things up and make a breakthrough with economic or other methods for new dialogue and cooperation.”

When the 31 experts were asked what situation Korea will have the most difficulty with diplomatically, 50 percent of the respondents said, “The widening schism between the United States and China.” Over a third, or 35.3 percent, said, “Improvement in North Korean and Chinese relations while the South and China are in discord.”

Korea has been diplomatically caught in the middle in the past.

Ahead of President Park attending a Chinese military parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of China’s victory over Japan in World War II last September, Korea was in a dilemma trying not to antagonize Washington.

“We get flustered and struggle when we are caught between the United States and China in times of crisis,” said Park Ihn-hwi, an international politics professor at Ewha Womans University. “That is why even though the deployment of the Thaad battery was used as a preemptive card, it rather limited our diplomatic autonomy.”

Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said, “Rather than being preemptive, we are practicing a passive diplomacy. Whether it be Washington or Beijing, we try to say the good things first. And the more difficult the issue, the greater the need to set a principle and follow it at an appropriate time, but we keep missing it.”

Most experts were against Seoul retracting its Thaad decision.

The survey asked, “Should we maintain the decision even though China’s measures in protest may lead to economic losses?” to which 67.7 percent, or 21 respondents said “yes.”

One diplomatic expert who agreed said, “As we came to the decision taking into consideration our sovereign right, in the case we overturn it, this would set a bad precedent to China and other countries who will think, ‘Korea will change its attitude if you push hard enough,’ and it would break the United States’ trust in us as well.”

On why the Thaad issue is shaking up Korea-China relations, Kim Sung-han, an international relations professor at Korea University, said, “There is an aspect of Korea having fallen into the trap of following a balanced diplomacy between the United States and China. Our government may have thought it was improving relations with China with a focus on the Korea-U.S. alliance, but in reality, Washington thought, ‘Korea is getting too close to China,’ and China’s understanding was, ‘We are doing a good job coming in between the Korea-U.S.-Japan relationship.’”

Seoul and Washington’s decision to deploy the Thaad battery came on July 8, right before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague made a landmark ruling on the South China Sea issue on July 12, that said Beijing had no legal basis for its historical claims over the waters.

Security expert Lee Sang-hyun, a senior research fellow with the Sejong Institute, said, “In one aspect, China perceives Korea dealt a double-blow at a time it was on the diplomatic defensive. Because it was in a defensive situation, it reacted aggressively.”

BY SPECIAL REPORTING TEAM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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