Hard decisions to make
The author is former South Korean Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs.
America’s foreign policy on China is shaping up just two months after the launch of Joe Biden’s administration in January. Biden prioritizes China policy as seen in his considering the appointment of an “Asia czar” in the White House. In a changed international environment in which the former U.S.-Soviet rivalry was replaced by the Sino-U.S. confrontation, the Biden administration will certainly deal with Korean Peninsula issues, including the North Korean nuclear threat, in the bigger frame of U.S.-China competition. As a result, the United States will demand more from South Korea than in the past. U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s simultaneous trip to Seoul and Tokyo next week translates into a strategic step to consolidate America’s alliances and put the brakes on China’s growing clout in the region.
In the meantime, South Korea is impatient to restore dialogue with North Korea. With only a year left before President Moon Jae-in steps down next March, his Korean Peace Process is deadlocked despite his enthusiastic efforts over the past four years. As if to show his determination to re-create the glory of his 2018 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the liberal president keeps shuffling around the same people who helped him have a summit with Kim.
But Moon must not forget that U.S.-North dialogue did not resume even under the Trump administration. With Biden’s arrival, it will be even tougher. If Moon wants to rekindle the defunct denuclearization process, he must firmly establish Seoul’s position on China for more effective consultations with Washington. Unless Moon takes an approach in the bigger framework of the Sino-U.S. standoff, he will have trouble convincing the Biden administration of the need for rapprochement with a nuclear-armed state across the border.
And yet, the Moon administration is not ready to determine its position on China. In fact, our past governments avoided setting out principles on China amid the Sino-U.S. confrontation over the decades and, instead, reacted to their conflicts on a case-by-case basis. That encouraged the two countries to draw South Korea to their side. While the U.S. harbored more distrust in its ally, China mounted pressure on South Korea to bring the country to its side.
To address this dilemma, the Moon administration must first fix its position and future direction between the United States and China and let them sense it through concrete policies. If the government offers policy consistency and predictability, China and America can both fix their expectations from South Korea — an indispensable task for the country to weather the Sino-U.S. rivalry.
But if the Moon administration keeps avoiding the task and demands soft approaches to North Korea from the Biden administration, it will only backfire. You can hardly expect South Korea to get help from America to find ways to break the deadlock in the peace process. If Pyongyang makes a military provocation under such circumstances, the Moon administration will be stuck with nothing left to do until its term is over next year.
I want to propose substantial approaches to North Korea. First of all, the Moon administration must draw up a comprehensive plan, including a fixing of our position between China and the U.S., to facilitate consultations with Washington. What counts most here is that the United States is our ally while China is a partner. South Korea also shares more values with the United States than with China.
South Korea has made one of the most outstanding accomplishments over the past decades by upholding democracy and a market economy system. China took a different path. If we were to veer closer to China, we would have to compromise such precious and fundamental values as freedom, democracy and sovereignty. Therefore, we should fix our future direction closer to the United States. At the same time, the government needs to be discreet in dealing with China given its geographical proximity and our economic interdependence.
Second, it would be better for the government to devise effective ways to stabilize its relations with Japan. Washington would welcome that. Unless the government demonstrates flexibility on sensitive issues, including the wartime forced labor and sexual slavery hot potatoes, it can hardly expect a positive reaction from Tokyo. The longer such disputes drag on, the more disadvantageous for South Korea.
Third, the government should reactivate the suspended peace process after determining ways to respond to China and Japan and consulting with Washington over the North Korea issue.
Korean diplomacy faces a test again. If the government fails to coordinate North Korea policy with Washington, its diplomatic and security scorecard will be poor. South Korea must make tough decisions on China and Japan. That is not only needed for policy toward Beijing and Tokyo but also toward Washington. If the Moon administration isn’t prepared to do this, it cannot get what it wants from a Biden administration engrossed with containing China in the region. Is Seoul prepared to accept that uncomfortable truth?
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.