Publisher Council on Foreign Relations Press
Release Date March 2013
With new leaderships in place in China, Japan, and South Korea (ROK), along with the reelection of Barack Obama in the United States, hopes are high in South Korea for better regional cooperation and coordination. Despite this optimism, challenges remain for South Korea in its attempts at making a fresh start to foreign relations. In particular, North Korea's launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile and third nuclear test, both of which were allegedly successful, are reminders that despite the new cast of regional actors, the script of regional dynamics may be more of the same.
Although new South Korean president Park Geun-hye campaigned with positive overtures toward Pyongyang, North Korea's missile and nuclear tests have limited the scope of her administration's policy options. Park's ability to respond punitively is also restricted by the fact that precision-guided surgical air strikes, considered by Washington in 1994, are no longer feasible or desirable for South Korea. The only remaining option is to use sanctions to hit at Pyongyang's "palace economy," which would undermine the regime's ability to buy elite loyalty and would likely lead to the former's collapse.
China is against the collapse of the Kim regime, believing it would cause regional instability and inhibit Chinese plans for a peaceful rise. Consequently, despite North Korea's brazen provocations, Beijing continues to provide assistance to Pyongyang. In addition to the calculation that punishing its neighbor is likely to cost China more than it would gain, three perceptual and structural obstacles make a change in Beijing's policy improbable, if not impossible. First, Beijing predicts a difficult future for Sino-U.S. relations. Second, Beijing views U.S. alliances with South Korea and Japan as part of a U.S. strategy to contain China's rise. Third, the Korean peninsula lacks a stable mechanism for peace. Since none of these obstacles is likely to be addressed in the near term, China's modus operandi regarding North Korea is likely to remain unchanged, rendering the regional situation similar to that of the past.
Seoul's entanglements with China extend beyond the North Korean problem. China is unhappy with the current state of relations with South Korea, which it describes as "carrying 'dark currents' that can swamp the relationship at any time" and as "coming near a strategic crossroads." The two countries also face a wide range of complex bilateral issues—differing perspectives regarding history, norms, values, and the ROK-U.S. alliance, as well as growing trade dependency—none of which has an easy or straightforward solution. Mismanagement of these pending issues could cause rising ROK and Chinese expectations for their two heads of state and improved bilateral relations to backfire. Although it may help that Park is the first South Korean president to speak Chinese, what is really needed is a better contextual understanding of China.
The new South Korean administration's Japan policy may also face difficulties, Park's good intentions toward a "grand reconciliation" notwithstanding. It has become increasingly difficult in recent years to distinguish a "realist Japan" from a "revisionist Japan," and there is an emerging South Korean perception that Japan's rightist drift is not merely the mishap of isolated and select politicians but rather a consistent trend of growing significance.
In regard to South Korea's relations with the United States, with North Korea's asymmetrical threat deemed more grave than ever, another debate over the planned 2015 transfer of wartime operational control from U.S. Forces Korea to the ROK military is likely. Furthermore, in light of North Korea's growing nuclear capabilities, domestic pressures will also mount for a better deal on South Korea's 1-2-3 nuclear cooperation agreement with Washington. South Koreans will want Park to secure an agreement with provisions at least on par with what has been agreed on by Washington and Japan. More important, though uncertain, is how the Park administration will respond to the U.S. rebalance in the context of consolidated ties between China and North Korea. Furthermore, since this U.S. strategy is geared more toward Southeast than Northeast Asia (from which Washington has never departed), the Park administration may have to broaden the country's diplomatic focus to encompass this other subregion and to set foreign policy agendas for the entire East Asian region. Again one is reminded of the varied scopes and visions of previous administrations: Kim Dae-jung's East Asia, Roh Moo-hyun's Northeast Asia, and Lee Myung-bak's "New Asia."
Fortunately, the Park administration appears ready and willing to be flexible and practical. When a country is more of a dependent than an independent variable of international politics, as is the case with South Korea, pragmatism derives from action rather than statements. Thus, the Park administration's diplomatic initiatives within South Korea's regional security and political environment will be more important than past announcements about what she hoped she could do. In particular, Park should avoid an obsession with "trust," a term repeated during her campaign as the foundation of her foreign policy. Building trust is important, especially in South Korean domestic politics, but trust alone is insufficient to resolve many interstate matters. In fact, maintaining some strategic suspicion is healthy in this cruel world of international politics. Thus, what South Korea needs is pragmatism and flexibility rather than dogmatism stuck on abstract concepts.