Grow a spine
Discerning weakness among South Korean authorities, the Chinese fishermen turned bolder. In December 2011, another coast guard officer off Incheon was fatally stabbed by a Chinese sailor. Last November, the government authorized the coast guard to use firearms against illegal Chinese fishermen. Cases of illegal fishing by Chinese plunged by 78 percent in the first half compared to a year earlier.
Beijing has mounted retaliations against South Korean enterprises ever since Seoul decided to bring in the American Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) anti-missile system for protection against growing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea. Lotte Mart became the primary target because its parent group traded a golf course, which became the home of the Thaad battery. Lotte Mart has now decided to pull out of China because it is losing so much money in its Chinese operations.
Car sales in China by Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors were halved from a year ago. Another retailer, Shinsegae Group, folded its discount store business after 20 years in the country. Travel agencies are going out of business because their major revenue source — Chinese travelers — have stopped coming. Losses from economic retaliation by China are estimated at 20 trillion won ($17.7 billion), taking 400,000 jobs.
The only diplomatic response Seoul came up with was to beg Washington to tell Beijing off. The presidential office announced that it won’t file a suit against Beijing with the World Trade Organization (WTO). The government is also considering not raising the issue during a WTO Council for Trade in Services slated for Oct. 6. Seoul claims it does not want to irk Beijing at a time when its role in containing Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile provocations is crucial.
China’s response to the North Korean nuclear threat hinges on its relationship with the United States. South Korea’s position is hardly a factor. Yet Seoul thinks it is part of the game. Beijing won’t reconsider curbing its oil supplies to North Korea just because Seoul treats it gently at the WTO. Nor will China suddenly soften its sanctions on North Korea just because Seoul challenges it at the WTO.
Seoul clearly is deluding itself. It too easily gives up bargaining chips with China like a WTO suit or a redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons even though it does not have many diplomatic options.
China’s diplomacy is often compared to the country’s traditional art of face mask changing. Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye received the red-carpet treatment from Chinese President Xi Jinping when she flew to Beijing to attend a military parade marking the 2015 China Victory Day, an invitation most global leaders turned down. On the plane returning home, Park confidently told reporters that there could be progress in negotiations for peace on the Korean Peninsula as she and Xi had “deep” talks over it. Everyone thought South Korea had become closer to China.
When North Korea carried out its fourth nuclear test four months later, Park publicly called for help from Beijing, saying a friend would help out in times of difficulties. But Xi didn’t answer Park’s call. Beijing cold-shouldered Seoul and bluntly told it not to overreact. This was a good example of getting kicked in the face for trusting Beijing.
The special envoy who went to Beijing carrying a letter from President Moon Jae-in soon after his election in May received frosty treatment. The delegation should have walked out of the room, where they were arranged to be seated far away from Xi, or should have stayed in the waiting room until changes were made in the seating.
As we lack such bravado, we get mockery from Beijing and state media calling us dumb from eating too much kimchi. Peace has returned to our west sea and our fishermen can go about their business at ease because Seoul stood up with force. The same tactic should be applied on the diplomatic front.
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 19, Page 34
*The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.