Have Korea and China made up?All eyes are on U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to Asia and the signals he will send on the ongoing North Korea dilemma. Prior to his visit, however, attention was also focused on a complex diplomatic dance between the Moon Jae-in administration and China. Did the two countries reach an agreement, and on what terms exactly?
The public record is confusing, because the understandings of the two parties diverge. Following the meeting of Korean and Chinese delegations, Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a bland statement on the “outcome” of the meeting. The parties agreed to work together to advance North-South contact and to “manage the situation in a stable manner, including by deterring North Korea from launching any further provocations and alleviating tensions.”
China, however, suggested more definitive understandings on South Korea’s national defense policy. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman made reference to three no’s: that the ROK will not join any regional U.S. antimissile defense system; that ROK-U.S.-Japan security cooperation would not develop into a tripartite military alliance; and that there would be no further deployment of Thaad batteries.
These three no’s were certainly not in the South Korean press release. But Minister Kang Kyung-wha did make reference to them in her appearance before the Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee only the day before the October 31 meeting. Moreover, both President Moon and his advisers weighed in forcefully on the alliance question in particular.
So is there an agreement on these points or not? And if so, did China also agree to cease and desist with respect to its Thaad-related sanctions against South Korean firms, and particularly Lotte?
With respect to the first point, the answer appears to be “no.” The South Korean press makes no mention of these issues. A South Korean press guidance states that “the announcement should be interpreted as is. Aside from what we have announced, there is by no means any promise or assurance offered to China in any form whatsoever.” The implications of this divergence are extremely important. If agreement was not reached on these points, it suggests that China has misrepresented the meeting.
Yet the public statements don’t entirely clear up the issue. What should we make about Minister Kang’s comments and the timing question, coming just before the meeting on which China and Korea appeared to bury their differences?
It is important to underscore that these commitments do not reflect anything that the Moon administration intended to do in any case. No one believes that Korea, Japan and the United States would formalize an alliance and more Thaad batteries were not in the offing. Although there has been cooperation on ballistic missile defense, South Korea is currently committed to developing an independent “Kill Chain” first.
Nonetheless, the implications of this episode are extremely important. First, if agreement was not reached on these points, it suggests that China has misrepresented the meeting.
And what about the understanding with respect to Chinese behavior? To state the obvious, China certainly made no public commitment to stop using economic instruments, hiding behind euphemisms. To do so would have been to openly admit what everyone knows: that Beijing was in fact bringing unacceptable economic pressure to bear on South Korea about Thaad, despite the fact that North Korea is the ultimate culprit in this story.
How do we interpret this episode? Korea watchers in the United States have been quite divided. Some believe that Beijing backed off on Thaad. Perhaps Xi Jinping wanted to appear reasonable as Trump was coming to Beijing. Perhaps he saw longer-term advantages from strengthening ties with the Moon administration and expanding Trump’s room to maneuver on North Korea.
Yet many believe that China may be behaving badly. Beijing has effectively brought a different form of pressure to bear: laying down new markers or even red lines with respect to South Korean foreign policy. In National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s briefing for the Asian press, he openly questioned whether South Korea should make commitments that would tie its hands on these issues.
My belief is that while China, the United States and South Korea share the objective of denuclearization, their views of tactics diverge and the United States will periodically misread the Moon administration. Secretaries Tillerson and Mattis have repeatedly stated the U.S. preference for negotiations, but it is clear that Trump is more impatient. Moon has clearly moved toward the center on the North Korean issue, but maintains a deep commitment to engagement and with a political base to match. In this regard, his views are closer to China’s. Whatever the final outcome of Trump’s visit, the strategies of Seoul, Beijing and Washington have still not clearly aligned.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 10, Page 33
*The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego. He is the author with Marcus Noland of the Witness to Transformation blog at https://piie.com/blogs/north-korea-witness-transformation.