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Tense times for South Korea, the shrimp surrounded by whales

Protest against President Park Geun-hye in South Korea

The Interpreter, 11 March, 2017

The decision by South Korea’s Constitutional Court to uphold the National Assembly’s impeachment of beleaguered President Park Geun-hye is the starting gun in a 60-day race to the Blue House.

The Constitution requires that an election be held within that time period, which means a new leader will be elected by 9 May at the latest. According to most polls, the next leader of South Korea is expected to be Moon Jae-in, the leader of the Minjoo Party, who came a close second to Park in the 2012 presidential election. While much can happen in two months in Korean politics, if Moon does become the next President, it will likely complicate South Korean politics and security policy even further in what has already become an incredibly tense period.

In recent weeks tensions on the Korean peninsula have been ratcheted up to their highest level in some years, following a North Korean assassination in Malaysia and a series of missile tests into the Sea of Japan, that were supposedly in response to this year’s Foul Eagle US-ROK exercise. As if that were not enough, China-ROK relations have also plummeted over the decision of the Park government to deploy the American Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) ballistic missile defence system in South Korea. As the system was deployed in Seoul, Beijing vented its fury by cancelling tour groups to South Korea and by sanctioning certain South Korean businesses in China. Adding a new South Korean leader to the mix could go in a number of ways.

First of all, what is Moon’s policy platform? Many of his views that first emerged during the 2012 election have come into sharper focus in the past few months. Like many Korean politicians from the left, he has an antagonistic relationship with South Korea’s security agencies. Like his mentor, Roh Moo-hyun, president from 2003-2008, Moon has been arrested for his views. Consequently, he has pledged to reform government organisations, saying earlier this week: ‘The authorities, such as Cheong Wa Dae, the prosecution, and the Intelligence Service, have been the main culprits undermining democracy’. Faced with a slowing economy and high unemployment – particularly among the young – Moon has promised ‘a revolution to create more and better jobs’. With a slogan of ‘people first’, he has also stated that he intends to reform the chaebol system, in which large conglomerates dominate the Korean economy and are said to have contributed to a widening between haves and have-nots.

In terms of the relationship with the United States, Moon has a mixed record. On the one hand, has called the US the ‘most important country’ for Seoul, while at the same time stated that he’s against the deployment of the THAAD system inside the country. The system was hastily deployed earlier this month, perhaps in anticipation of Friday’s ruling. Moon asserted, ‘Reconsidering THAAD would have to be proceeded with diplomatic efforts, including diplomatic efforts with the US. I don’t think…[it] would harm the South Korea-US alliance. Given the transactional nature of the Trump administration, removing a system which gives early warning of a North Korean missile launch to US forces in Japan or the continental United States, this assertion is dubious. The fact that Moon Jae-in is also known to favour an engagement-heavy approach toward North Korea may also push the relationship into crisis, since the Trump administration has signalled that it favours a hard line on the regime.

On the other hand, Moon’s approach will please Pyongyang and Beijing, which have have both resented the Park government’s close ties with Washington. Beijing will be particularly pleased if Moon withdraws the American radar system from the peninsula, since it worries about the system’s ability to gather data on its nuclear deterrent. Warning both about ‘consequences’, China has already begun sanctioning South Korean companies and blocking Chinese tour groups from visiting the country. With regards to Moon’s approach toward Pyongyang, Chad O’Carroll from NK Watch states, ‘Moon Jae-in’s election could result in the largest ever shift from one administration to another of North Korea policy in South Korea’s history. As this will likely cause issues between Seoul and its allies, O’Carroll asserts that ‘the North will exploit any policy confusion as soon as it begins to arise’.

Former-President Park Geun-hye has spent her last night in the Blue House presidential palace. Her isolation now is in many ways a striking metaphor for South Korea’s own position. Historically, Koreans have referred to their state as a ‘shrimp surrounded by whales’. The pressures, internal and external, on the Korean polity from Beijing and Washington, from Tokyo and Pyongyang, reveal a kernel of truth in this odd saying. Whoever becomes the next President of South Korea will have many issues to navigate, and many choices to make. Let’s hope they bring calm and some security.


China’s fear of the US prevents any defusing of the North Korean Threat

The Telegraph, 6 March, 2017

Isometric Corean crisis

In the wake of widespread criticism of its assassination of Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur last month, North Korea has defiantly fired four intermediate ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan. Tracked by US, Korean, and Japanese forces, the four missiles were fired 730 on a Monday morning, from Tongchang-ri province, with three landing in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The timing was of course carefully chosen. Coinciding with the annual military exercise Foal Eagle, in which US and South Korean forces train for a future North Korean invasion, the missile test was a threatening reminder to Washington that Pyongyang’s nuclear reach is growing and may soon be able to hit the continental United States. This threat, North Korea’s leaders may reason, might deter the United States from defending South Korea in any future contingency.

The launch was not, however, good timing from Beijing’s perspective. It has been opposed to Seoul’s decision in 2016 to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), an anti-ballistic missile defence system within its territory.

Citing China’s “national security concerns” in February 2016, Foreign Minister Wang Yi worried that the X-band radar could peer far beyond North Korea’s territory, deep into Chinese territory. Its concern was that the system could be used offensively and also to gain strategic early-warning in any US-related contingency.

The deployment has revealed a number of security dilemmas on the peninsula that diplomats are struggling to de-conflict. In the first instance, South Korea remains a favourite target of North Korea and has suffered a number of minor attacks and provocations over the years. In 2010, the North even sank one of its corvettes, the ROKS Cheonan in the Yellow Sea, killing 46 Korean sailors.

 It also bombarded a South Korean island later that year with artillery, killing two civilians and wounding 19. Seoul’s search for security is thus only reasonable. However, by deploying the American THAAD system, its search for security is thought to undermined Chinese security.

The past year has seen a strong Chinese campaign to pressure Seoul into stopping the deployment, with the government banning Chinese tour groups to the country, and boycotting a retail company after it agreed to supply land for the THAAD deployment. In many ways, Beijing is the victim of its own ally in all this.

Unable or unwilling to pressure North Korea where it might truly hurt – on energy and food supplies – Beijing focuses its ire on South Korea alone, using economic and political pressure, and offering only platitudes about restarting peace talks.

In a sense, this pattern of prioritizing its own security preferences – at the expense of its regional neighbours – is becoming a hallmark of Chinese security policy in the region.

It is quite ironic, given the fact that its trade relationship with Seoul far outstrips that with Pyongyang. Dr. Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a senior lecturer in international relations at King’s College London says, “China is focusing on the wrong potential threat. If there were going to be a conflict in Northeast Asia, it would be the result of North Korea’s actions, rather than South Korea’s or anything related to THAAD.”

In reaction to Chinese displeasure, both Washington and Seoul have sought to remind Beijing ultimately, whether or not THAAD is deployed rests on China’s own actions. Before her downfall in a corruption scandal, South Korea’s strong-minded President Park Geun-hye stated that the South would not need THAAD if China dealt with the North Korean missile threat.

Admiral Harry Harris, the current Commander of the Pacific Command (PACOM), in charge of US forces in Asia Pacific, reiterated that, saying, “If China wanted to exert a lot of influence on somebody to prevent THAAD from being considered going into Korea, then they should exert that influence on North Korea.”

Naturally, American statements have little effect in China right now, as Sino-US relations dip to their lowest point in decades. Furthermore, as Jim Schoff, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, asserts, “the US-China relationship has essentially become the fulcrum for the regional security environment, and a misalignment of that point risks serious instability and possible conflict.”

While many warn of the “Thucydides Trap” that China’s rise might provoke, both have made serious efforts to accommodate each other and avoid conflict. America’s support for China’s inclusion into the World Trade Organization in 2000, its support for a Chinese-hosted Six Party Talks, and its promotion of a US-China bilateral Strategic and Economic Dialogue in 2009, reveal the sincerity with which both states have sought to institutionalize the relationship. The Trump administration has seemed to question whether those efforts were in America’s best interests.

While Beijing has argued – often correctly – that it has little leverage over the regime in Pyongyang, the truth is that China holds the keys to resolving the issue. Every day, hundreds of trucks, carrying fuel and coal enter into North Korea from the Chinese border. If China were to stop these, North Korea’s economy would cease to function in short order.

China continues to supply the North partly because it does not really want a unified Korea on its doorstep. This is especially true of any future state based on the South Korean model, with its strong security alliance with Washington. Talking with Chinese diplomats and scholars on the issue, one is struck by the fear of containment that runs through Chinese policy circles; the possibility of American troops on the Yalu River exerts a stronger grip on them than North Koreans weapon systems – systems that are after all, aimed at Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington, rather than Beijing.

In all this, few have asked what Seoul wants. This is where the second security dilemma becomes evident, the intra-alliance security dilemma between Washington and Seoul. Critics in Seoul have argued that the system does not really protect South Korea from many of the North’s deployable missile systems, and that it merely serves to protect US forces in the Pacific and on the US continental mainland.

These criticisms miss the point of how South Korea’s military views the system. First, it does provide early-warning on North Korean launches, second, and perhaps more importantly, it further binds the US to South Korea.

In an age of Trump, when US defence guarantees to allies have been re-examined for their utility, the institutional defence system, worked by both militaries, has helped bind the two allies closer together. By agreeing to host the system, Seoul offers the US a form of security – that of early warning for any US-bound missile launches. Furthermore, as the relationship between Washington and Beijing becomes increasingly marked by competitive elements – perhaps even trade war – the US will welcome anything that brings its regional allies closer in line with its regional objectives.

Today’s four missile tests will have annoyed Beijing to no end, since they effectively justify Seoul’s decision to deploy the American system. To some extent, China’s criticism of THAAD focuses on the radar system and ignores the cause: that of North Korean missiles.

Arguably, Beijing has forced Seoul into this position by pursuing its narrow security preferences over those of Seoul. It might want to reconsider its support of Pyongyang and further cut its dealings with the disagreeable regime.

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