Tough test ahead
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
“A situation in which Korea is loved by both the United States and China will never be a dilemma,” said Yoon Byung-se, foreign minister for the Park Geun-hye administration, in 2015. “In other words, it can be a blessing.”
Yoon was criticized for being a Pollyanna. But he was not entirely wrong. It is true in this world that a crisis can turn into an opportunity — depending on how you handle it. The problem is that we failed to do so at that particular time.
In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping invited Park to visit Beijing for Victory Day celebrations, which celebrated victory over Japan in World War II. In September 2015, Park attended the event as the only leader from a free, western country and watched the massive military parade from the Gate of Heavenly Peace on Tiananmen Square. China took this as a message that Korea would become its strong friend. Park jumped on that bandwagon. “Discussions will soon start about how to achieve a peaceful reunification of the two Koreas,” she said after the trip.
Park was clearly — almost comically — overly sanguine about Korea-China relations. One can say China was too.
Following North Korea’s repeated provocations, including its alleged test of a hydrogen bomb in 2016, the Park administration in July made a long-delayed decision to allow the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) anti-missile system in South Korea. I was a correspondent in Beijing at the time, and I faced countless complaints from my Chinese friends. The Chinese people appeared to think that Park stabbed China in the back after coming to the Victory Day parade and suggesting that Seoul would consult with Beijing about everything.
Though the Thaad system was eventually deployed in Korea as the United States wanted, schisms emerged between the two allies as a result of unnecessary political gestures Park showed toward China after coming into office. The results were not a “blessing” but the worst possible outcome, as South Korea lost the trust of both the United States and China.
Dark clouds of a new Cold War between the United States and China are hanging over the Korean Peninsula. The peninsula will most likely be an arena of a renewed Cold War, just like in the past. How can we protect the accomplishments of industrialization and democratization that we worked hard to build after colonial rule and the Korean War?
No one will question the need for pragmatic diplomacy to maximize our national interests while not upsetting either the United States or China. However, pragmatic diplomacy must not be mistaken with an equidistant diplomacy or an unprincipled diplomacy. An equidistant diplomacy is impossible unless Korea becomes a neutral country or a non-aligned country.
Then what can we do? We can learn some valuable lessons from the past concerning the Thaad deployment. First, we must make clear what we can do and what we cannot. Strategic ambiguity is useful in some cases, but an unexpected outcome can result if it is kept too long. In his novel, “Thaad,” Kim Jin-myung featured the dilemma of choice. The book became a bestseller in 2014, but the South Korean government maintained its strategic ambiguity for more than two years.
An unprincipled diplomatic approach clearly has its limits. You can please everyone and anyone to avoid trouble, but you cannot avoid a decision forever.
Just like the decision to allow the Thaad deployment, the critical moment when you can no longer delay a decision eventually arrives. We must decide our principle at the beginning and make an accurate calculation on timing, rather than being pressured to make a decision at the last minute. We must decide our decisive moments on our own and act. That is the only way to overcome the high waves of the upcoming new Cold War.
U.S. President Donald Trump made a strong appeal by inviting President Moon Jae-in to the G7 Summit. Moon gladly accepted the proposal. But the dilemma will be how to wisely position Korea’s relations with China. Will Korea fail to escape the dilemma between the United States and China or will it enjoy the blessing of becoming a member of the Group of 11? Moon’s diplomacy faces a tough test.