Between a rock and a hard place

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Between a rock and a hard place

The nonstrategic, insensitive and thoughtless remarks made by Korea’s National Security Office chief, Kim Kwan-jin, during his trip to Washington are staggering. It is deplorable that the head of security is not any better than the president.

In a meeting with Michael T. Flynn, the incoming U.S. national security adviser, on Jan. 9, Kim openly said South Korea and the United States will deploy the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system in Korea as planned, regardless of China’s opposition. On Tuesday, he confidently told Korean correspondents that Thaad is a matter of Korea’s sovereignty and Seoul will not care about Beijing’s opposition.

The foreign affairs of Korea are trapped in a crossfire of superpower neighbors. It is stuck in conflict between the United States and China over Thaad and missile defense issues and against Japan over the “comfort women” agreement.

Kim, however, made a stumbling move that severely hurt diplomatic efforts to find an exit. Although Thaad is a matter of sovereignty, it is not all Korea’s sovereignty. Openly ignoring China and walking the path of security cooperation only with the United States run against the comprehensive security desperately needed in Korea. It is true that our security is dependent on the United States, but China is a factor that cannot be dismissed.

Trump’s foreign affairs team is creating a new strategy for Asia. The larger direction is a G-3 structure that includes Russia in the Group of 2 currently encompassing the United States and China. During the U.S. presidential election, Russian President Vladimir Putin supported Trump. Trump appointed Putin’s best friend as his secretary of state.

China is the biggest obstacle in his America First policy. Trump is attempting a strategy to check China by holding the hand of Putin, who remains isolated in Europe from the Ukraine crisis. That is why he made an unconventional phone call to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.

Trump has two reasons — economic and military — to make checking China the axis of his Asia policy. As a trade protectionist, Trump wants to correct the perennial trade deficit with China. In 2016, the United States suffered a $320 billion loss from its trade with China. Trump thinks the cause is the Chinese government’s currency manipulation to maintain a low yuan.

The military strategy has the first goal of checking China’s naval power in the South and East China Sea. The second goal is containing China in Northeast Asia by strengthening security cooperation with Korea and Japan. The strategy directly conflicts with China’s ambition to become the sole superpower in the West Pacific. China is sensitively reacting to Thaad deployment because it is wary of Korea becoming part of the missile defense network of the United States and Japan.

China’s retaliation against Thaad started with economic sanctions and expanded to restrictions on Korean cultural imports. When the system’s deployment is complete in May, the retaliation will strengthen in seriousness and scope. The Chinese Air Force sent aircraft, including strategic bombers, into Korea’s air defense identification zone on Monday, in protest of Thaad deployment and against a military intelligence-sharing pact that Korea signed with Japan in November.

It is frustrating that we do not have any effective countermeasures against China’s economic, cultural and military retaliation. We cannot reverse the Thaad deployment plan now lest we endure worsening Korea-U.S. relations. The deployment issue should have been handed over to the next administration with the maximum degree of ambiguity. But Kim threw cold water on the issue, though the outcome was not even clear.

The renewed conflict between Korea and Japan over the comfort women issue added yet another burden on already pressured Korea. The two countries agreed at the end of 2015 to settle the issue “finally and irreversibly.” But the agreement quickly faced condemnation from victims, opposition parties and international human rights groups. The establishment of another comfort woman statue in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan worsened the situation.

The Shinzo Abe administration is concerned that the agreement will vanish due to public sentiment from the candlelight vigils in Korea and made strong diplomatic moves, recalling its ambassador and suspending currency swap negotiations. Although the United States and Japan proposed a trilateral military drill with South Korea to counter North Korea’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles, the plan has not been realized due to Seoul’s opposition. The decision is against the government’s attitude of highlighting North Korean threats day after day.

The future of Korea’s diplomacy is dark, but as Heraclitus once said, all is flux, nothing stays still. Everything changes, and we must find a way out. We may be able to use Trump’s instinct as a businessman when dealing with the United States. Trump’s meetings with SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son of Japan and Alibaba founder Jack Ma of China give an important hint to us.

The opposition parties must refrain from instigating populist propaganda on the Thaad and comfort women issue. The security team of our paralyzed government must not worsen the diplomatic predicament and remain still. The next administration will be able to find a breakthrough on the Thaad conflict with China by using the possibility of joining the U.S.-led missile defense system as a negotiation card.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 13, Page 31
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