Korea struggles with relations to China and U.S.

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Korea struggles with relations to China and U.S.

While Korea faces unusual domestic circumstances with the impending decision of the Constitutional Court on the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, there is mounting criticism over the amateurism in the government’s approach to handling foreign affairs toward the United States, China and Japan.

The Korean Embassy in Beijing is in a state of emergency because of China’s backlash to the decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system. Chinese authorities, including its Commerce Ministry, have been refusing to meet with Korean Ambassador to Beijing Kim Jang-soo for months now.

Despite Pyongyang’s continued provocations, the South Korean government is also facing setbacks in getting its voice heard in Washington these days with a new U.S. administration, and is almost being excluded from major discussions amid policy-forming on the North Korea nuclear and missile problem.

This comes amid discussions among White House security advisers on topics like a preemptive attack on North Korea and the redeployment of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, considered taboo issues in past U.S. administrations.

The New York Times on March 4 reported that in two meetings of U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security deputies in the Situation Room, the most recent on Tuesday, “all those options were discussed, along with the possibility of reintroducing nuclear weapons to South Korea as a dramatic warning.” These issues will soon go to Trump and his top national security aides, according to administration officials.

This would mark the first time in 25 years since the Roh Tae-woo administration that the U.S. government is discussing the deployment of nuclear weapons to South Korea.

Likewise, Japanese Ambassador to Seoul Yasumasa Nagamine has been recalled to Tokyo since early January over the installation of a statue representing victims of the Japanese military’s wartime sexual slavery near its Busan consulate. Amid continued diplomatic tensions, last week a Korean tourist in Osaka was reportedly attacked by spray paint to the face by three unidentified Japanese male youths.

There is also concern that there exists no immediate solution to these mounting diplomatic hurdles facing Seoul amid its leadership vacancy. One former high-ranking Korean Foreign Ministry official said, “The three strongmen - U.S. President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe - are taking advantage of President Park’s impeachment period and beating down on the 70-day government.”

“Instead of clearly prioritizing strategy in terms of national interest,” Kim Sang-han, professor of international relations at Korea University said, “each agenda seems to have been approached impulsively, so the topography of foreign affairs and security affairs are all entangled together.”

Mr. Jeong, a middle-aged man who has been active in China for the past 20 years, runs a consulting firm that links Korean and Chinese companies as well as government and public institutes. He visited a central government agency in Beijing on March 1 to seal a consulting contract related to a Korean health care management system which has been in the works for a while now.

But a ranking official he met with on the day told him offhandedly, “Under the current atmosphere, nothing will be accomplished, so wait until we contact you again.”

Jeong took the business trip to Beijing because the Chinese official had contacted him first, but faced a setback as a result of the announcement last week of the land swap contract between Lotte Group and the Korean Ministry of National Defense enabling the deployment of the Thaad antimissile system to a golf course in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang.

“It’s not only me but people involved in business between Korea and China all face the same predicament,” said Jeong. “The Korean government does not have a pinpointed solution, so it is frustrating.”

China in retaliation to Seoul’s decision to place a Thaad system in Seongju County has been taking incremental retaliatory measures, starting out with unofficial bans on Hallyu, or Korean wave, content, targeting Lotte Group for providing the land to place the battery and even ordering travel agencies to stop selling tour packages to Korea.

But there is no countermeasure in place by Seoul currently, though an official of the Korean Embassy in Beijing says, “There is no visible disadvantage at least in the trade sector.” But there is no guarantee for this in the future. There is mounting concern that Korean products, such as cosmetics, which are highly competitive in China, will become a target, as well.

The annual consumer rights program broadcast on China’s state-run CCTV on March 15 will be an opportunity to see if Korean companies are targeted. The program, which aims to expose dodgy services and products from companies, both foreign and local, coincides with World Consumer Rights Day and has in the past sparked investigations by regulators, public apologies from executives, tarnished reputations and plunging market shares.

Korean Ambassador Kim has received no response to requests for meetings with Chinese officials in commerce, cultural and tourism related branches. But China is not the only one to blame, since the Korean government is also seen as having been negligent in reading into Beijing’s strategic intentions.

“During his visit to China last June, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn met with President Xi Jinping and said ‘there has been no decision made on Thaad,’” one diplomatic official who asked to remain anonymous said, “but less than a fortnight later, the decision to deploy Thaad was announced. If you consider how things got so convoluted, we cannot ignore that our unseasoned behavior also caused some of China’s mistrust.”

Trump had ignored the Pyongyang issue in the month following his inauguration as U.S. president on Jan. 20, but White House security advisers and government officials have been discussing topics like a preemptive attack on North Korea and the redeployment of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, as well as regime change in North Korea.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reportedly mentioned regime change during closed-door talks on his visit to Tokyo last month.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s upcoming visit to Japan, Korea and China later this month also reflects the urgency of the North Korea issue. South Korean government officials have stated a preemptive strike on Pyongyang is “a line that cannot be crossed.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has had meetings with Trump twice, once as a nominee and again last month, but Seoul has yet to have such a platform.

Trade is another key matter and Korean Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy Joo Hyung-hwan kicked off a four-day trip to Washington on Sunday and will meet with Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and other Washington officials and experts.

He is expected to emphasize that the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement is beneficial to both countries amid the Trump administration’s move toward renegotiating free trade deals.

Wie Sung-rak, a professor at Seoul National University, said, “We need to first solidify the Korea-U.S. alliance, then run a two-track strategy with Japan, separating historical issues with economic cooperation. We need to take into consideration China’s prolonged retaliatory measures and respond in accordance to international norms and unfold a strategy for diversification to lower our reliance on China.”

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