Confronting a bullyRobert Einhorn, former special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control at the U.S. State Department, last week shared a behind-the-scenes episode from his time in public service. His boss, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, went to Pyongyang in October 2000 to lay the groundwork for a visit by President Bill Clinton.
While conversing with her host, then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, she asked what he thought about the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula. The answer was surprisingly diplomatic. He said, “Koreans [on both side of the border] do not have genuinely friendly neighbors. China, Russia and Japan have always been threatening us and had ambitions over our territory. It would benefit us more to have a distant yet strong friend that has no aspiration over our territory. To [both] Koreans, it would be more advantageous to befriend the U.S.”
Kim might have been being polite to his high-profile guest. But at the same time, he revealed North Korea’s distrust of its biggest ally, China. Einhorn criticized Beijing for its economic retaliation on South Korea for its deployment of a U.S. antimissile shield, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system.
In order to patch up ties that were frayed over the Thaad conflict, Seoul agreed to three conditions: (1) no further Thaad deployments; (2) no U.S.-Japan-ROK alliance; and (3) no Korean participation in a U.S. regional missile defense system. But nowhere in that agreement was there any mention that Thaad was deployed in the South for defense against North Korea’s nuclear threats. Nor did Beijing formally issue any statement of regret or apology for its harsh treatment of Korean companies.
Above all, Seoul decided not to take China’s economic punishment of South Korea to the World Trade Organization. It is understandable that President Moon Jae-in and his government could not afford irking Beijing at a time when it needed its support in addressing the North Korea nuclear threat and arranging North Korean participation in the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
But South Korea made itself look like it could be pushed around any time that China wants. “Other governments cannot understand why Seoul has not responded strongly to Beijing for dealing an economic blow of 13 trillion won ($12 billion) to 20 trillion won,” said Lee Jae-min, a professor at Seoul National University School of Law. “Having seen we can be easily tamed, Beijing can continue to abuse its economic might. This can clearly undermine our national interests.”
Visiting Seoul two months ago, Karel De Gucht, a former Belgian foreign minister who was the European Commissioner for Trade from 2010 to 2014, said that China must be dealt with roughly. The U.S. Congress in March issued a rare resolution condemning China’s economic retaliation toward South Korea over Thaad. China’s actions also received criticism from the media across the world. If Seoul had taken litigation against Beijing to the WTO, the case would have come into the global spotlight. The affair may have boded ill for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has been championing globalization and free trade. Washington also would no longer take Seoul so lightly in North Korean affairs.
China joined the WTO in 2001, but has failed to be considered a market economy by the United States, European Union and Japan. Chinese products still fall victim to heavier antidumping measures and heavier duties from those countries due to the stigma. Seoul granted Beijing market economy status in 2005. “We could have gained leverage if we threatened to withdraw the status,” observed Choi Byung-il, a professor at Ewha Womans University.
A WTO suit against China wouldn’t ruin bilateral ties. China has been sued 39 times by WTO members since it entered the global trade protocol, including 21 times by the United States and eight times by the EU. Japan also filed suits twice against China’s retaliations over territorial disputes. Even developing countries like Guatemala filed suits and Mexico did four times against China.
Beijing did not turn its back on the countries that sued it. The suits are just a part of the norms of global trade. Since Seoul joined the WTO in 1995, it has been engaged in 33 litigations and won nearly 70 percent of them. Yet it chose to stay mute despite China’s manifest unfairness.
The global order is unstable to a degree we have not seen before. U.S. President Donald Trump places more importance on bringing riches to his country than upholding the traditional U.S. role as defender of world peace, freedom and human rights. China has begun to fear the United States less. Xi has declared he will make his country the world’s most powerful by 2050. The Chinese elite claim that goal may be achieved much faster.
Recently, Cambridge University Press deleted 315 papers on China from its online journal “The China Quarterly” after bowing to Chinese pressure. After that move came under fire from academics, the press restored the papers, which included writings on the Tiananmen massacre and Cultural Revolution that Beijing found offensive. Beijing’s power has become strong enough to censor publications in Europe. China has always been assertive about territories in the region, stoking conflict with its neighbors. Seoul encouraged Beijing’s bullying by foregoing a WTO suit.
Former North Korean leader Kim believed that it would be more helpful for Pyongyang to have Washington as a friend than Beijing. Through the Thaad blow have we painfully learned the reason why Kim thought so. It is important to keep diplomacy in balance. But more importantly, we must know who our friends really are. Friends should talk frankly. We must speak straight to Beijing if we want to get respect from our allies and defend our sovereignty and national pride.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 20, Page 35
*The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.