Calls are growing for Seoul to improve inter-Korean ties to secure diplomatic leverage amid rising concerns over its diplomacy being challenged by a stronger U.S.-Japan alliance and escalating Sino-U.S. rivalry.
Enhanced cross-border relations would allow Seoul to help ease military tensions on the peninsula and beyond, forge a mood of reconciliation and cooperation in the region and subsequently bolster its diplomatic profile, analysts said.
“The Korean Peninsula is exactly where tensions between the U.S. and China are focused, and ideological division continues,” said Koh Yoo-hwan, North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University.
“Thus, when there is a shift in the inter-Korean relationship, an opportunity would arise for the competing countries in the region to ease tensions. We would, then, see the mood of reconciliation and cooperation emerging in the region.”
Concerns over Seoul’s diplomacy have recently been rising as it appears to be caught in a competition between the U.S., its only security ally, and China, its largest trading partner. The strengthening U.S.-Japan alliance has also highlighted South Korea’s tricky position as the alliance is expected to further pressure it to join their efforts to keep China in check.
Seoul’s strained ties with Tokyo and Pyongyang have added to the concerns over its diplomatic challenges, with critics arguing that Seoul needs a more “strategic” approach.
Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies of Seoul National University, said that the “maneuvering space” for South Korea’s diplomacy is increasingly limited by the rising U.S.-China tensions, stressing that Seoul needs a more creative, sophisticated strategy to handle foreign relations.
“There seems to be a lack of strategic thinking on the part of the Seoul government when its diplomatic maneuvering space is being reduced due to the Sino-U.S. competition ― very limited compared with the 1990s right after the end of Cold War when Seoul had greater flexibility in its diplomacy,” he said.
“The inter-Korean relationship is the only area that we can deal with for now to turn the Korean Peninsula into an area for Sino-U.S. cooperation, not a confrontation. It is the reason why Seoul needs to do more to improve cross-border relations.
To enhance ties with the North, the South needs to pursue a method of “coexistence” and refrain from indicating ― albeit not intended ― that it is pursuing reunification by absorbing the communist state into the South, some observers said.
President Park Geun-hye has repeatedly said national reunification will help address North Korea’s nuclear problem and its woeful human rights conditions ― a message that Pyongyang thinks reveals that Seoul envisions unification via a collapse of North Korea.
“Seoul should send an unequivocal message to Pyongyang that it has no intention of seeking reunification by absorbing the North. It has to clearly present that it is exploring ways of peaceful coexistence with the North,” Chang of the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, said.
As Pyongyang maintains hostile rhetoric toward Seoul and sticks to its nuclear development, inter-Korean relations have continued to falter.
Seoul has sought to unconditionally reopen dialogue with Pyongyang, but the communist regime has put forward preconditions such as lifting a set of economic sanctions that Seoul imposed after the North torpedoed the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March 2010.
For the inter-Korean relations to move forward, some experts argued that Seoul needs to relax the sanctions and continue to pursue dialogue. Pyongyang also needs to improve ties with Seoul to help ease its international isolation and shore up its moribund economy, they noted.
“For now, there are no neighboring countries that maintain stable, good relations with the North. But should the South come forward, improve ties with the North and secure some initiative in leading peninsular issues, this would, of course, be a diplomatic advantage for Seoul,” said Chin Hee-gwan, unification professor at Inje University.
“Improved inter-Korean relations would lead to a reduction in North Korean threats, which will reduce the need for Japan to push for heavier armament and will also influence Washington’s policy toward the peninsula and the region.”
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org