Beijing pulls a fast oneWe are relieved but also disquieted at the abrupt patching up of ties between South Korea and China after 16 months of tension. Tourism into Korea and cultural exports into China will be normalized. Economic constraints and retaliations will be lifted one by one, a joint statement on Tuesday signaled.
What appeared to be a dark, endless tunnel suddenly ended. Beijing was brutal and mean in its punishment of Seoul for going against its wishes and allowing the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) missile shield. Our tourism industry was nearly wrecked and Korean businesses in China suffered big time. The economic toll on Korea has been colossal.
China did not express any regret or apology before offering to “normalize” its relationship with Seoul. The Blue House said the settlement was the best “for the future.”
President Moon Jae-in has big plans for the upcoming PyeongChang Winter Olympics. He wants to turn the sporting event into a peacemaking initiative through an invitation to North Korean participants. To do so, he must have Chinese President Xi Jinping seated in the front row at the opening ceremony in February. Pyongyang dare not refuse to send its team to the Olympics if the Chinese leader attends.
The road outside the tunnel looks bumpy. In a National Assembly hearing, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha explains how we must keep ties with Beijing amicable. Seoul must not install additional Thaad units, join a U.S.-led missile defense system or build up a regional security alliance among South Korea, the United States and Japan. These “three nots” were not stated in a joint statement, but were obviously agreed to by Seoul. The Chinese foreign ministry said it hoped Seoul’s actions will correspond with its words.
The “three nots” are straightforward enough. In diplomacy, ambiguity is a common currency. Diplomats must choose language with strategic subtleties because straightforwardness could bring about rashness in policies and directness can thwart diplomatic inventiveness. Kang’s rhetoric on the “three nots” was surprisingly direct.
Moon reiterated Seoul’s decisive role in affairs related to the Korean Peninsula. “We must decide on our fate ourselves,” he said in an address to a National Assembly general session on Wednesday. But Seoul lacks its own deterrence ability against a nuclear-armed North Korea.
The “three nots” are China’s demands. But we can also use them as leverage. The establishment of a U.S.-led missile defense regime and tripartite military alliance can be cards we use in our relations with Washington and Tokyo.
They could also be employed as bargaining chips against Pyongyang in the longer run. This could work favorably for Moon in keeping his place in the driving seat in diplomacy. But the foreign minister exposed the bargaining chips and offered to give them up too soon. She has narrowed the maneuvering room in our diplomacy.
Korean affairs are unpredictable and volatile. North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un has big ambitions with his nuclear weapons. The Thaad shield in our southern area cannot protect the capital. What if North Korean missiles point at Seoul? There is a U.S. base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi. The United States could propose to install another Thaad battery there. Beijing would oppose it, citing the “three nots.” Kang’s hasty pledge was unwise. Seoul has more or less licensed Beijing to meddle in security decisions of Korea and the United States.
Korea’s missile defense system is at an early stage. It hinges on U.S. missile capacity. Japan’s intelligence is also crucial. U.S. backup forces are based in Japan. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan is anchored at the Yokosuka naval base in Kanagawa Prefecture. The “three nots” could challenge a U.S. aircraft stationed near the Korean Peninsula. Beijing could accuse it of being a part of a tripartite defense alliance.
The “three nots” undermine agility and flexibility in Korea’s defense capabilities. Korea’s diplomatic and security policy is too rigid. Washington cannot be happy about it. The sudden reconciliation between Seoul and Beijing could put Korea’s traditional alliance with the United States to a new test.
The Thaad debacle provided a good lesson. Exchanges with China picked up from the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Seoul had the upper hand for the first 10 years. But China under the leadership of Xi is entirely different. It is offensive on the foreign front. It has turned aggressive and domineering.
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis accused China of taking an outmoded approach in which “all other nations have to pay tribute or acquiescence to the more powerful nation.” North Korea’s nuclear threat requires a patient approach. China’s solution is fixed. It wants to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. That appears to be hard-line but actually it is timid. The outcome of recent talks between Seoul and Beijing could cause a little anxiety for Pyongyang. But Beijing’s fundamental approach towards Pyongyang and its threats hasn’t changed.
Moon found a breakthrough to a diplomatic stalemate. The problem begins from now. Beijing could try to interfere in the Korea-U.S. alliance. Moon and Xi will hold a summit on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Conference in Vietnam on Nov. 10-11. The details of this week’s so-called settlement will be revealed. Koreans have seen the true face of China. Moon must incorporate the wisdom and resoluteness gained from the Thaad lesson when he meets Xi.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 2, Page 35
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.