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[Hwang’s China and the World] What can South Korea and China work on together?

April 28, 2022 - 12:28 By Choi He-suk

The inauguration of South Korea’s new government in May will be an opportunity to assess the current state of South Korea-China relations and seek further development in the future.

President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol presented his plans to turn South Korea into a global pivotal state during his election campaign. He has also declared that strengthening the US-South Korea alliance and South Korea-China relations are simultaneously achievable goals.

Since South Korea and China established diplomatic ties, all South Korean administrations have sought balanced development of relations with both the US and China. All have confronted barriers.

Given that South Korea and China’s interests are mostly heading in different directions, the outlook for their relationship is not very positive, even after the new administration’s inauguration. Both countries need to reestablish their perspectives toward each other and see the relationship as it is, not as a measure to influence US-China relations or inter-Korean relations.

Back in the time of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic missile system’s deployment in 2016, we saw how sensitivity on security issues overwhelmed South Korea and China’s economic mutual dependence. Based on that experience, South Korea and China should respect each other’s security concerns. At the same time, they should firm up their respective understanding of each other’s positions on security to avoid creating tension.

Therefore, South Korea and China should frankly admit that they are quite different in various aspects. Even if they do not agree, they should accept each other’s policies as a reality. Work to find an optimum meeting point is critical and necessary.

This week’s discourse invites two experts from South Korea and China to discuss South Korea-China cooperation, particularly on the North Korea issue. The two experts have contributed significantly to studies on North Korea. We have Lu Chao, a professor at Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences in Shenyang, and Cha Du Hyeogn, a principal fellow of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

Hwang: As Korea has a new conservative government (President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol and the People Power Party) coming in, China seems to be concerned.

Cha: I would like to ask if cooperation between the South Korean and Chinese governments was really successful during the last five years of the incumbent Moon Jae-in administration. Of course, Moon could not neglect the US’ interests while focusing on his policies toward North Korea. At the same time, he had to keep in mind that renouncing the US-South Korea alliance was not an option. These overall circumstances must be the same for the incoming Yoon Suk-yeol administration, but I expect him to implement policies that aim to balance the US and China. From this perspective, the Yoon administration will revise all foreign policies from the previous administration and seek a new approach. But I would still like to say that the Yoon administration’s approach will not be based on strategic ambiguity, which causes confusion for the other side.

Lu: On March 25, President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol and Chinese President Xi Jinping had a phone call. Considering the fact that President Xi normally does not have phone calls with newly-elected South Korean president-elects, the recent case proves how both China and South Korea are aware of the significance of two countries’ strategic communication. In particular, President Xi said, “Facts have proven that the development of China-South Korea relations conforms to the fundamental interests of the two countries and their people, and promotes regional peace and development.” This shows his view that both China and South Korea have a responsibility to keep the regional peace and promote world prosperity while the current international society is facing several challenges. Yoon also added that strengthening Korea-China cooperation will contribute to development of bilateral relations and interests for people from two countries, as well as the peace and stability of Northeast Asia. As seen, the phone call between Yoon and Xi is meaningful in the sense that it established the foundation for the development of healthy bilateral relations. The two countries made a consensus on that maintaining and improving two countries’ relations is in the fundamental interests of both.

Hwang: Please tell us about the new South Korean government and China’s further policies toward North Korea.

Lu: Basically, China is encouraging North Korea to proceed with reciprocal peace talks with the US, and insists on strengthening communication and cooperation with North Korea as well as parallelizing strategic communication with South Korea at the same time. Additionally, the North Korean nuclear issue is closely related to the security environment for the countries in the region, which make China’s principle clear that the process for peace negotiation must be open and transparent. While inter-Korean relations are intensifying again, I think China and South Korea should be standing on the same side to keep the peace regime stable when it comes to peninsular issues. The two countries should calm the situation with a sincere approach and put more efforts into reopening talks based on mutual trust.

Cha: First of all, while the Moon administration’s policy toward North Korea was basically focusing on peace first and denuclearization later, the incoming Yoon administration is expected to take a “denuclearization first” approach, considering North Korea’s highly escalated nuclear capability over the last 10 years. It is just that the new government is also aware of that denuclearization in a package is very difficult, since the previous conservative Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye governments’ “denuclearization first” approaches also could not make practical outcomes. Under the conditions, the upcoming government is likely to reflect how it went so far and stress some precedent actions for denuclearization first. In other words, as we are not able to clearly apprehend how far North Korea has elevated its nuclear capability, a report from North Korea will be required. Then a cross-check on North Korea’s report must be held, which will be the base for freezing its nuclear programs. These steps have to be fulfilled to partially lift sanctions on North Korea. Additionally, from South Korea’s perspective, it is within North Korea’s missile range, including its intercontinental ballistic missiles. As a result, Korea’s stance can be strengthened to require actions to restrain North Korean missiles from carrying nuclear warheads.

Hwang: Regarding the nuclear issue, what specific actions can we take?

Lu: Though the Korean Peninsula seems to face a significantly difficult problem, it surely has a hope and all the related countries must endeavor for a breakthrough. Under the current circumstance, we should think of what would happen if the aim of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is dropped. Moreover, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is not only for South Korea, but is also a part of international nuclear nonproliferation. Given these points, China will firmly stand on supporting the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. If North Korea keeps its promise on halting its nuclear development, Korea and China should work on mitigating sanctions on North Korea by pushing for international agreement. This will eventually assist a smooth process for denuclearization. Regarding the transition of an Armistice Agreement to a Peace Treaty, China is a country that is influential in establishing a long-term peace regime in the Korean Peninsula and actualize the denuclearized Korean Peninsula. In this sense and for the regional security and stability, we oppose North Korea’s military provocation, particularly the nuclear development, and I would like to suggest South Korea to minimize any type of provoking attitudes toward North Korea also.

Cha: North Korea’s denuclearization has to be the goal in common, and not just rhetoric. China has rhetorically supported denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula several times, however, from now on, Korea and China should have a common goal in the smooth dissolution of North Korea’s nuclear capability. North Korea has particularly announced its development of ultra-modern tactical nuclear weapons at its Eighth Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party in 2021, which was targeting South Korea. Moreover, now its capability is going beyond the Korean Peninsula and has expanded to the US mainland. This means North Korea has surpassed the “self-defense nuclear deterrence” that it has constantly insisted on. Some might argue that China is an exempt from North Korea’s threats because of the special characteristic of their relations. Nonetheless, due to the characteristics this specific weapon has, no one can tell for sure that it will be exclusively used on a particular country. Regarding China’s suggestions on freeze-for-freeze and dual track approaches, I am not quite sure on the dual track. However, we might need to reconsider whether freeze-for-freeze is actually an equivalent measure.

Hwang: Besides denuclearization, what can South Korea and China work on together?

Cha: Until today, both conservative and progressive governments made mistakes based on the idea that economic leverage can control North Korea’s actions. However, for the last five years, North Korea has continuously said that allowing South Korea to use its economic leverage is directly connected to its weak point. It does not necessarily fit into North Korea’s own ideas and desires on economic development. Let’s remember that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered the removal of South Korean facilities during his visit to Geumgang Mountain in 2019, and that North Korean workers in economics emphasized their own approach to economic construction reflect all these realities. From this point of view, the new government is recommended to establish inter-Korean economic cooperation plans that can contain aspects favorable to South Korea while also reflecting North Korea’s ideas and wishes. South Korea is a government leading aid for North Korea. There are also various ways to cooperate, like getting actively involved at the people or municipal level.

Lu: Peace on the Korean Peninsula might come sooner if inter-Korean cooperation is achieved with China as the pivot in areas that do not violate sanctions. For instance, this can include sports, cultural exchange and economics which can settle a peaceful and stable atmosphere among China and the two Koreas. Furthermore, we can think of South Korea-China cooperation to solve North Korea’s food security issues, as well as to improve the North Korean people’s daily lives. Today, North Korea is suffering from food insecurity, as all its external trading channels are blocked due to economic sanctions from most of the international community including the US. Again, strengthening cooperation between South Korea and China to relieve North Korea’s food security issue is essential. At the same time, the way they support North Korea should also be acceptable from its point of view. This is where we need more discussions. Lastly, South Korea and China can think of strengthening inter-Korean cooperation or connecting the China-Mongolia-Russia economic corridor. This would build the Eurasian network by utilizing China’s Eastern railway and its connected networks. Establishment of all these networks will enable China, South Korea and North Korea’s northeast Asian distribution point.

Hwang: Regarding foreign relations, both Koreas have alliances or relations similar to an alliance. How can Korea and China approach issues that are sensitive to their alliances?

Cha: Both South Korea and China have to acknowledge the historical values that the US-South Korea alliance and China-North Korea relations have. When it comes to policies toward North Korea, South Korea and China should limit excessive expectations toward each other in order to successfully achieve cooperation. Traditionally South Korea wanted China to be a mediator to invigorate inter-Korean relations and to exert pressure on North Korea to change. Meanwhile, China wanted to balance against the US-South Korea alliance by promoting South Korea-China relations. However, the problem is maximum feasibility. If South Korea and China are stuck in wishful thinking about the roles that the other side can play, mutual distrust will deepen every time they don’t get what they want. In order to reduce such mistakes and errors, South Korea and China must acknowledge the opposing values that cannot be given up at this present point. South Korea should accept the fact that it is impossible for China to get very close to South Korea, if it comes at a risk for North Korea’s regime and system. On the other hand, China should also admit that weakening the US-ROK alliance is realistically difficult. A new setting of cooperation should come to the table, which is marked by the minimal expectations of one another.

Lu: When we talk about North Korea’s nuclear issue, US President Biden is continuing the “strategic patience” that former President Obama has emphasized. However, he is not making any practical effort to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons. North Korea has also not received any sign or message for a talk from the US. Accordingly, Kim Jong-un laid down his will to continue negotiations with the US. As a result, from the beginning of this year, North Korea has launched several missiles and shown a firm attitude toward the US. This explains why the Biden administration had no other option but to resume unconditional peace talks with North Korea. President Biden is continuing to make efforts to attract more countries into its alliance amid the US-China strategic competition. As the incoming Yoon administration is highlighting the US’ focus on strengthening the US-South Korea alliance, South Korea is anticipated to conduct independent diplomacy. This diplomacy will not choose to bandwagon on either side of the US-China competition, as it is a global pivotal state.

Hwang: We are greeting the 30th anniversary of South Korea-China diplomatic relations.

Lu: First of all, South Korea and China should emphasize the fact that a strategic partnership in all dimensions fits with both countries’ common interest. Even after the inauguration of the Yoon administration, the overall direction of South Korea-China relations must be consistent. However, the tension and conflict between North and South Korea is not an evitable issue, and we have to keep in mind that the problem can worsen anytime. Despite this current flow of events, China is South Korea’s largest trading partner and also one of the most important countries in maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. Therefore, we should be aware that generally, China-South Korea relations must not waver depending on any political changes. We should understand that China is striving to improve and develop China-South Korea relations once President-elect Yoon is inaugurated. China is anticipating a visit from President-elect Yoon at an appropriate time. In addition, given that 2022 marks the 30th anniversary of diplomatic ties between South Korea and China, we must actively work on cooperation in the private and public sectors, based on China-South Korea cultural exchanges.

Cha: South Korea and China have already been together for the last 30 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations. The spectrum of further cooperation is expected to expand sustainably. Nevertheless, South Korea-China relations still have gaps to be filled in compared to 60 years of North Korea-China relations, or the 70-year US-South Korea alliance. This explains why we must perceive the existing confrontations between South Korea and China as growing pains to strengthen bilateral trust. For now, South Korea and China must recognize that both sides have to be patient and get to know each other more.

Hwang: Do you have any additional comments to add?

Lu: When we are setting a specific path, inter-Korean talks must be held before the US-North Korea dialogue takes place. When it comes to core talks on nuclear and security, the US, North Korea and South Korea are all seeking denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. However, they are currently in conflict due to their own separate interests. South Korea should cooperate with its strategic partner China on various levels and channels to solve all these issues -- not only with the US and North Korea.

Cha: South Korea and China must have strategic transparency toward each other. For both countries to have rational expectations of each other, honesty must come first. Moving on from strategic ambiguity, South Korea and China should clarify their respective strategic stances and establish which values South Korea respects. This strategic transparency may bring temporarily conflicts between the two countries, but will ultimately build trust and enhance their relationship.

Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of the division of international studies at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation and a member of the Presidential Committee on Policy and Planning. This discussion was assisted by researchers Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan.

By Hwang Jae-ho