This is a re-post of an essay I wrote last week at the Diplomat. I guess South Korea-China relations is a hot topic, because I got a bunch of emails over this – note to grad students.
The quick version is that South Korea really needs China now to get any kind of movement on North Korea, so it kinda has to suck up to Xi. I am of the school that says that North Korea is sliding into an economic colony of China, regardless of how they bluster and blow off nukes. In fact, the reason Pyongyang probably has the nuclear and missile programs is not just to deter the US, but to prevent China’s economic domination from turning into political domination too. So Park will be practically begging Xi to rein in Pyongyang. She has to – which sucks, btw, and shows just how cynically China manipulates the human rights catastrophe that is North Korea to its own callous advantage. Awful.
But Park can offer to restrain/impede the US pivot/containment of China as a quid pro quo for North Korea help. China really needs South Korea in order to prevent the US pivot from becoming full-blown encirclement of China. Because South Korea is so virulently anti-Japanese, it is an important hole in the tightening containment line around China that runs from Japan through Southeast Asia to India. The Koreans don’t want to line up against China, and they really don’t want to line up with Japan. If China is smart, they’ll exploit that. So China is unlikely to really bully South Korea as it has in the South China Sea.
Here’s that essay:
“China’s new president, Xi Jinping, is scheduled to come South Korea in the next few weeks. Given the tame, bland statism of both countries’ media, few of the interesting debates and important disagreements will be aired. Instead, the national prestige obsession of both will dominate the coverage. There will be a lot of self-congratulation and vanity: how important each country is now, how they are re-setting world politics, how the West, and the United States especially, needs to pay more attention to them, and so on. And finally, as both countries’ bureaucracies are reflexively anti-Japanese, there will be a lot of the standard conspiratorial ‘Japan is remilitarizing and plotting to take over Asia again’ boilerplate. All-in-all, the local media coverage will be weak and recycled, so instead, here are the large, unspoken issues lurking in the background:
1. South Korea is increasingly caught between its economic dependence on Chinese export markets and military dependence on the United States.
Simultaneously, South Korea continues to significantly underspend on defense, given the challenges of both a conflict with North Korea as well as occupying and reconstructing it. Despite decades of prodding from the United States, Korea still only spends 2.5-3% on defense. It is woefully unprepared to fight North Korea alone, much less pursue a counter-insurgency in an occupation. South Korea desperately needs the US for its external security, which in turn creates obvious tension with China.
There is no obvious answer to this dilemma that would not involve significant internal pain. The chaebol have little interest in rocking the export boat with China, while there is little will for higher defense spending, and the South Korean left is strongly opposed to that.
2. South Korea increasingly needs China to get any measure of good behavior, much less unification, out of North Korea.
In the early post-Cold War years, there was much fluidity among North Korea’s neighbors. China had not yet risen dramatically. It was one player among many, while the US, Japan, and South Korea had not yet moved toward a unified position on the North. Russia’s near total collapse in the region was not yet clear.
Today, the lines have hardened. Russia plays little role on North Korea. Putin may enjoy flirting with it to poke the US in the eye, but he is a mild spoiler at best out here. The US, Japan, and South Korea have broadly hewed to a moderately hawkish line since the collapse of the Sunshine Policy. As such, North Korea, which used to happily bounce back and forth among possible patrons, playing them off against each other, is now stuck. Its only exit from the (more or less) unified democratic front, is China. North Korea must placate China in order to evade the punishing UN sanctions regime it faces. China is now North Korea’s primary pipeline to the rest of the world. Smuggled goods come through inbound flights (it is very easy to see when you fly into Pyongyang from Beijing) and over the Yalu and Tumen Rivers. Chinese banks help launder North Korean illegal monies from its drug-running and insurance fraud. The cushy lifestyle of the Pyongyang elite – HDTVs, luxury cars, modern appliances, top-shelf liquor, and so on – would not be possible without massive Chinese non-compliance on the sanctions.
This has thrust China into a newfound prominence on North Korea. It hosted the (failed) Six Party Talks, and there is a growing consensus among North Korea watchers that if China were to cease its economic and diplomatic support, North Korea would suffer a major systemic crisis. (A game theoretic model of this relationship between North Korea and its neighbors is the ‘stag-hunt.’) South Korean President Park Geun-Hye must now dote on Beijing to bring about any kind of movement on North Korea, and in the longer term, any hope for unification now depends on Beijing’s willingness to one day cut off North Korea. So long as Beijing pays Pyongyang’s bills, provides it diplomatic cover at the UN – where it recently blocked a reference of North Korea to the International Criminal Court – and provides it with an unstated defense guarantee against the United States, North Korea will continue to stumble on. The road to Pyongyang now runs through Beijing.
3. South Korea may not worry about China’s rise as the United States and Japan do, but it will not compromise on nearby maritime territorial issues with China.
It is now widely recognized outside of South Korea that China manipulates South Korean anti-Japanese feeling in order to drive a wedge between the Americans’ main allies in the region. Indeed, were the US not in the region and allied to South Korea and Japan, it is unclear whether South Korea would align with Japan or China. Japan would be the natural political choice; like South Korea, it is an open, liberal democratic state with an exemplary record since the war. But ‘Japanophobia’ runs very deep in South Korea. Koreans fear and dislike the Japanese far more than the Chinese. Post-colonial resentment of Japan is shared by both and is often projected back through history. That the Chinese Ming dynasty helped Korea against a Japanese invasion in the 1590s is well-known by every Korean school-child. Korea has little interest in aligning with the US and Japan against China.
But this does not mean that Seoul will agree to China’s increasingly capacious territorial claims in the East China Sea. China’s expansion of its air defense identification zone last year was greeted with hostility in Seoul as well as Tokyo. While the Japanese and South Koreans did not cooperate, both rejected the expansion, and South Korea counter-expanded its own ADIZ in response.
South Korea has taken a similarly hardline with Chinese ‘fishermen’ who regularly wander into South Korean waters in the Yellow Sea. China does not recognize the inter-Korean sea border – called the Northern Line Limit – and it has rented out some of these waters from North Korea. South Korea has rejected this and regularly detains Chinese vessels that enter.
These three areas of tension will belie the smiles and self-congratulatory rhetoric coming later this month. South Korea is in the weaker position. It is smaller and desperately needs China’s help with North Korea. But it also has the looming threat of the US pivot in the background. China cannot play too tough, or it risks pushing South Korea into the emerging US-Japanese anti-Chinese camp. Good relations with South Korea is China’s best chance of fracturing the emerging ring of hostile state on its periphery, particularly in the South China Sea. Regional hostility to China means Xi will not be able to bully Park as China has with the Philippines and Vietnam recently.”