A needed history lessonHistory shows that the Korean peninsula has long been a pawn in the great superpower game, and so we have suspected that the big nations have a natural desire to throw their weight around.
Unlike Chinese President Xi Jinping’s claim that China must be a standard-bearer for globalization, Chinese authorities have closed nearly two dozen retail stores of South Korea’s Lotte Group in retaliation for the decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system in South Korea. China still seems less rational and more aggressive to South Korea than expected. Anti-Chinese sentiment is on the increase in South Korea. One consequence of such a perception would be the deterioration of South Korean relations with China, compelling South Koreans of all stripes to rally around the flag to defend their country.
Interestingly, it’s difficult to see Koreans calling China “a true friend of Korea,” despite pro-China politicians’ claim that Seoul should shift toward a closer relationship with Beijing in reasonable consideration of China’s increasing economic importance to South Korea. Furthermore, there is little evidence that China will abandon a nuclear-armed North Korea, a loyal henchman and buffer of China against the United States.
Given that nobody can predict with any degree of certainty how North Korea’s nuclear capability will be evolved in the future, it appears more plausible for the Seoul government to hedge against the risk of uncertain future behavior from Kim Jong-un, the North’s unpredictable young leader, by strengthening its military ties with the United States, the only night watchman standing over the peninsula. Consequently, the antimissile radar battery system fell like a shadow over the Korean people on the one hand and on the other, it exuded hopes that the pivot to Asia might continue in the Trump administration, too.
A series of comments from Seoul and Washington already offered an indication of what was to come. The Seoul government was faced with requests for the prompt approval of the land swap deal for Thaad. South Korea’s decision of deploying Thaad, after all, became like “a stone thrown into a beehive.” The nation is ideologically divided. Some critics of Thaad fear that conflict could set the stage for a full-blown crisis with China, despite its once conciliatory developments with Beijing. In their judgment, this is a serious issue because not that long ago, the impeached president and her military aides hurriedly decided to string along the U.S. administration over the much-maligned Thaad plan on the pretext of North Korea’s growing nuclear threats.
To put it bluntly, the quick-thinking decision-makers from Seoul and Washington have found it better to install the advanced U.S.-made antimissile system into the peninsula as soon as possible. The backdrop for the deployment decision is the anti-Thaad rhetoric from a liberal presidential hopeful — pointed toward a thorough and transparent review of the new antimissile shield if elected. The blitzkrieg-like deployment seen as the apparent quick victory of the military in Seoul in collaboration with its counterpart in Washington eventually aggravated Beijing, which wrongly expected the deployment not to materialize until the onset of a new Korean government.
In truth, many, probably most, South Korean liberals see the U.S. approach to Thaad as irrelevant or unresponsive to threats from North Korea. Deeply concerned about China’s ‘multi-layered sanctions’ on South Korea, they regard the antimissile shield as a sub-structure of the U.S. missile defense strategy aimed at neutralizing China’s strategic arsenal in the making. Inevitably, just deploying the antimissile defence system sets off the alarm among the Chinese elites, who seem to have an obsession with the Thaad per se, not the substance of North Korean nuclear threats.
China is cleverly responding to the U.S. approaches, pointing out that the U.S.-China relationship of today remains no longer kind of the asymmetric one, under which Richard Nixon went to China in 1972. From Beijing’s point of view, China has now emerged as a new sheriff in the heart of Asia that has laid the foundations for the Asian Century. Indeed, people do not think of China as the weak Qing Empire on which British launched an assault in the first Opium War in 1839. China will expand its nuclear forces. The harsh reality is that the peninsula will have become a more dangerous place.
South Korea’s strategic concerns have become more complex accordingly. With North Korea’s sixth nuclear test highly anticipated at the moment, South Korean strategists are starting to look beyond the Thaad conflicts for opportunities. Unlike the critics who bristle at the Thaad deployment, the hardcore anti-China pundits want to look the contentious deployment issue in the eyes of what it is: the inescapable alternative of South Korea that relies upon the fate of the military alliance with the U.S., irrespective of the core question of whether South Korea would be more secure and more stable if the U.S. deployed the global missile defense in the peninsula. Their reaction looks as if “healthy forests required periodic burning,” since the peninsula remains in a military earthquake zone between the United States and China.
Policy is not the sort of theology in which any change of the religious dogma can be interpreted as breaking faith. There is deep uncertainty regarding the fate of the troubled Thaad deployment, but one of South Korea’s realistic options in the next government may be to suggest a joint approach to missile defense involving South Korea, the United States, China and maybe both Russia and Japan with a view to assessing North Korea’s overall threat and, finally, resolving it.
All in all, we are again supposed to discuss the following options as means to remove the thick smog of nuclear uncertainty in the Kim regime: tougher sanctions; espionage and covert action to sabotage the nuclear weapons program; clandestine action to remove the leadership; a diplomatic solution; and finally, learning to live with a nuclear-armed regime. The crucial question now is whether a new president to succeed the impeached president will be able to cope with the strongmen such as Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe.
*The author is vice president at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation, a private, non-profit, and non-partisan policy advisory body based in Seoul, South Korea.