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Michael Breen on Korean Peninsula

Why Korea struggles to manage the US, China

Oct 29, 2020 (Gmt+09:00)

As the United States and China fight like proverbial whales in the ocean, middle power dolphins like South Korea must strategize to avoid being crushed.

The specific question facing the South Koreans is whether they should continue as close US allies, or adjust in some way to accommodate China.

The Koreans have not faced a strategic question of this importance since the 1950s when, amid the ruins of the Korean War, they decided to forge a close dependence on the United States.

That alliance protected them against a second invasion by North Korea and assured the struggling government of handouts in the form of aid. Decades later it paid off in ways that at the start were unimagined. The American security umbrella became a crucial guarantor of the Korean economic miracle. Politically, their need to keep Washington onside pushed them to identify from the start as a liberal democracy and then, 30 years later, to actually build one.

Fast forwarding to the present day, it is apparent now that China will eclipse the United States as No. 1 on a range of fronts with huge consequences for its neighbors, and indeed, for the world. It is this momentous power shift, and not any specific disagreement, that causes the tension between the two states.

Of course, some unexpected new directions are theoretically possible. The Chinese center may not hold. The country may devolve with power going to the provinces. Or, democratic allies may form a US-led super-state with rules about free trade and movement along the lines of the EU, and thereby remain collectively more powerful than China. Or, China may become a democracy, in which case the tensions with the U.S. would remain but the concerns of middle powers would change.

But, assuming none of the above, and present-day illiberal China continues to outstrip the US, what should Korea do, given that the United States is its military ally and China is its most important trade partner?

There appear to be four options.

The first would be for Korea to remain firmly in the American camp. Second, it could move into the Chinese camp. Third, it could forge a neutral path as an East Asian version of Switzerland. And, fourth, it could keep muddling along, doing its best not to upset anyone.

Right now, it seems to be doing a combination of options one and four. It remains firmly in the US camp, but muddles along trying to be as friendly to China as possible.

In pursuing this approach, despite its democratic credentials, the Korean government tends to avoid taking positions that aren’t directly relevant. For example, it is quiet on the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong, China’s actions in the South China Sea and the apparent forced “re-education” of Muslims in its western Xinjiang Uighur region.

On other matters, it pre-emptively adopts a keep-China-happy posture. For example, Seoul has for the last 20 years denied entry to the Dalai Lama for fear of upsetting Beijing. Such a track record of timidity has emboldened the Chinese, who know the Korean weakness – hit them in the economic solar plexus.

Neither superpower is delivering the Koreans an ultimatum, but occasionally one side calls for a decision. For example, a few weeks ago, the Chinese Ambassador in Seoul, Xing Haiming, called on South Korea to join Beijing's global data security initiative. The two neighbors should “jointly shoulder the world's responsibilities for the digital era and elevate the development of digital economy to a much higher level,” he told the Yonhap News Agency. This seems reasonable enough on the surface, but as Beijing’s initiative is intended to counter America’s effort to discourage other countries from adopting Chinese technology due to security concerns, joining is not really possible. How to let the Chinese down politely?

The government of President Moon Jae-in is certain to try and muddle through on this one.

To frame this another way, it will approach the question tactically and not strategically. That is because it is impossible for a Korean government to take a strategic decision on any matter that is guaranteed to last longer than the incumbent president’s single, five-year term in office.

Moon himself took the extraordinary step of tearing up an agreement reached by his predecessor with Japan that sought to end the long-running issue of World War II comfort women because he disagreed with it. Any decision he reaches with regard to the US and China could meet the same fate.

Absent statesmanship and a keen sense of national interest based on the country’s democratic values, Korea is likely to keep muddling through.

By Michael Breen 

Michael Breen is a Seoul-based writer, columnist and consultant. He is the CEO of Insight Communications and the author of a number of books on Korea, most recently The New Koreans.

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