Far from a crossroadsThat the alliance between South Korea and the United States would remain rock solid for the foreseeable future has been deeply ingrained in the South Korean psyche for decades. I, too, was a believer.
But the ground is shifting. China’s ascendance and a parallel rise of pro-Chinese sentiment in Korea are testing the Seoul-Washington relationship. The question among many American policy makers: Will the evolving dynamics push South Korea into China’s embrace?
China’s role as South Korea’s largest trading partner is a factor. Since diplomatic normalization between South Korea and China was achieved in 1992, trade between the two countries has increased about 37 times from $6.37 billion in 1992 to $235.4 billion in 2014. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner and South Korea is China’s third largest.
Since taking office in February 2013, President Park Geun-hye has met China’s President Xi Jinping five times. In the same period, Washington has asked Seoul to start paying more of America’s military costs for protecting South Koreans from our volatile neighbor to the north. Earlier this spring, the Park administration chose to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a founding member.
As if on cue, a top aide to President Park underscored the need for a Northeast Asia Development Bank in cooperation with China and other neighboring countries at a forum held in Beijing on July 14. Not surprisingly, the senior presidential secretary used the term “hot politics, hot economics,” instead of “cold politics, hot economics” to describe good South Korea-Sino relations.
By accepting and accommodating China’s rising power and influence in the region, South Korea may well reflect a historically hierarchical system in Asia centered on China. In other words, the enormous U.S. power over South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War is already on the decline. I believe so.
In a 2008 survey conducted by the Dong-A Ilbo, for example, 52.3 percent of South Korean respondents said China will have the greatest impact on Korea in the next 30 years, surpassing the number who said the U.S. would, which was 30.1 percent. The South Korean public’s antipathy for the United States is also affecting the way Seoul views Washington. A 2014 survey conducted by the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies showed that 65 percent of South Koreans viewed the South Korea-U.S. longstanding ties as being fundamentally unequal.
While tension between South Korea and Japan simmers over unresolved issues from the colonial period and World War II, South Koreans get the unmistakable feeling that America is in Japan’s corner. That being said, the U.S. has, it seems, abandoned any role of restraining Japan as it moves forward with its plan to reverse its 70-year ban on sending its military forces to fight in conflicts abroad - which Washington actually approves of.
The embattled administration of President Park Geun-hye, which is suffering from declining popularity after its fumbled response to the Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak, now faces what some policy makers in Washington see as a test of the alliance: Seoul must decide whether to deploy an American missile-defense system, called Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad. Thaad is quickly becoming one of the most controversial issues in security policy circles here. In a February Hankyoreh op-ed, former Minister of Unification Jeong Se-hyun referred to the deployment of Thaad as dashing into a fire made of a bundle of dried leaves and sticks. It is rife with political and diplomatic challenges.
Just as with Seoul’s joining of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Thaad does not need to be a test of the friendship regardless of the position Seoul takes.
South Korea should reject deployment of the system - not out of fear of offending China, but simply because it probably doesn’t work well enough. There is no point in heightening tensions in the region for a weapons system that doesn’t even guarantee our security. Thaad deployment would also undercut international efforts to denuclearize North Korea. And unless China can be satisfied that Thaad is not being aimed at its territory, Beijing may consider the deployment of its own Thaad-like system.
What matters now are the steps that South Korea and the U.S. take to manage challenges and minimize their impact without provoking a new confrontation with China, not to mention the unpredictable North Korea. Both sides should discuss Thaad frankly and at the highest level.
Second, Seoul should convince Washington that it will continue backing the U.S. in pushing for tougher sanctions against North Korea unless the brutal regime in Pyongyang gives up its nuclear weapons program.
Third, the two allies should listen to their own experts who handled problems in the past that turned out well, since those specialists with long and high-level experience in government know how to turn lemons into lemonade. For instance, the 2012 agreement in which Seoul and Washington successfully agreed to extend the range of South Korea’s ballistic missiles represents a good course for the future of the alliance.
Finally, Washington need not rush a hot-button issue about which Koreans have yet to have a substantive debate. Instead, it should be carefully placed in the incubator of the die-hard alliance, in large part because any sensible policy analysis requires careful judgment.
In truth, the Washington-Seoul bond may be stretched as a result of China’s rise, but it will not break. China, which is now struggling with its own challenges to keep the world’s second-largest economy growing at a decent rate, makes for a good trading partner. But South Korea’s lack of common values with its giant neighbor will prevent any permanent shifting of alliances.
It’s important to avoid a black-and-white view of the alliance. The idea that a chipping away at the existing U.S.-led global order means that South Korea is moving closer to China - and mostly because of economic benefits - is a big mistake. Washington has been an indispensable security partner to Seoul, including conducting joint military exercises in and outside the Korean Peninsula. South Korea’s leadership has always been a steadfast U.S. ally even when liberals controlled the government. Many South Koreans are pro-American.
Given that South Korea finds it virtually impossible to satisfy the U.S. and China equally, the future of the alliance depends on how the elites of South Korea and the U.S. want to use it to upgrade bilateral relations. Instead of falling back on the 20th century concepts of alliance and security architecture, the best South Korea should hope for is a more balanced relationship with America without further eroding the value of the alliance.
*The author is the director of Nonproliferation Center at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.
by Lee Byong-chul