South Korea finds itself at the epicenter of a geostrategic danger zone that is all the more fragile today as a result of frictions resulting from China’s rise. More than ever, a volatile and self-isolated North Korean leadership is perceived as the trigger that could set off the regional powderkeg. Hence, South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s discussion with U.S. President Barack Obama regarding the North Korean issue will be an important and timely one. She will need strong support from the United States in her efforts to maintain South Korea’s delicate position between China and Japan and to stabilize the Korean peninsula.
The immediate challenge facing both presidents is about finding a way to disrupt North Korea’s pattern of missile and nuclear tests that have occurred every three years since 2006. Existing UN Security Council sanctions have slowed but not stopped North Korea’s pursuit of a capability to deliver a nuclear strike on the U.S. mainland. Both leaders have called upon Chinese President Xi Jinping to pressure North Korea to stop violating UN resolutions halting these tests.
Rather than negotiating North Korea’s denuclearization, however, North Korea’s impulsive leader, Kim Jong-un, has doubled down on a self-contradictory policy (byungjin) of parallel nuclear and economic development. At the same time, the August inter-Korean mini-crisis at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), ultimately defused through marathon negotiations, underscores North Korea’s fragility and weak hand despite Kim’s efforts to strengthen political control at home. The United States and South Korea seek to reverse North Korea’s destabilizing pursuit of nuclear weapons, which prevent the Kim regime from achieving greater economic development.
As part of her strategy to deal with the North, Park Geun-hye has strengthened her relationship with Xi Jinping, most recently through her participation last month in bilateral talks alongside Beijing’s commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II. Park’s controversial presence on the rostrum with Xi and Putin at the parade has elicited criticism from Western observers but has drawn domestic support from Koreans, who see a symbolic victory in Park’s replacement of North Korea’s Kim on the rostrum. Yet, China sent its highest-ranking leader in years, Chinese Communist Party Politburo member Liu Yunshan, to stand on the rostrum at Kim Jong-un’s own military parade commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the Korean Worker’s Party’s founding. Therefore, it remains unclear for now how closely the United States and South Korea will be able to work with China to deter North Korea from conducting further nuclear and missile tests.
From a broader regional perspective, the South Korean strategy of avoiding choices between the United States and China is under increasing strain. The Park administration walked a tightrope between the two countries by joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as a charter member despite the Obama administration’s objections based on South Korea’s own economic interests, especially given the competitiveness of many South Korean companies in the construction sector. Beijing has also pressed Seoul to reject the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, which, if deployed, could do much to assist South Korea counter North Korean advances in missile technology.
Japanese observers have criticized Park’s diplomacy toward Beijing, as the move has been accompanied by a deterioration in Japan-South Korea relations. From Japan’s perspective, Seoul is a point on a line between Beijing and Tokyo on a two-dimensional plane; Seoul moving toward Beijing is moving away from Tokyo. The United States too remains concerned about frictions between the two pivotal allies in the region as the U.S. rebalance to Asia could benefit greatly from a better relationship between Seoul and Tokyo.
U.S. officials, however, are not alarmed by South Korea’s diplomacy toward China as many Japanese observers are. Washington recognizes that the two-dimensional view of South Korean diplomacy is inaccurate because the U.S.-South Korea alliance is an anchor that prevents Seoul from moving into Beijing’s strategic embrace. Even so, the United States does hope to see Japan and South Korea fully stabilize their relationship by addressing differences over history forthrightly on the foundation of past understandings in order to expand bilateral and trilateral cooperation.
Park Geun-hye understands that a comprehensive U.S.-ROK alliance is vital to lessen South Korea’s vulnerability to North Korea and rising Asian rivalries and to bolster the application of international norms in Northeast Asia. Although China’s economic relationship with South Korea is vibrant, it is premature for the foreseeable future to expect that China can offer South Korea a viable security alternative to the alliance with the United States.