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[Editorial] Strategic path

Planned visits by Pompeo and Wang will highlight Seoul’s tricky position

Top diplomats from the US and China are scheduled to visit Seoul in October with South Korea being pulled in by the two superpowers amid their escalating rivalry.

Diplomatic sources here say US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will come to Seoul next week for a two-day visit, which will soon be followed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s trip here.

Their back-to-back visits may be the latest indication of the growing pressure Washington and Beijing are putting on Seoul to stand by either of them over a widening range of contentious issues.

President Moon Jae-in’s government has been trying to walk a tightrope between the US, its traditional ally, and China, its largest trading partner.

During a virtual seminar here last week, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha disagreed with the idea of South Korea having to make a choice on which side of the two superpowers it will take.

“(South) Korea is certainly in a geopolitical position that looks like we are caught in a crossfire. But I think you can turn that around and say it’s a leverage,” she said.

Other officials in the Moon administration have also noted South Korea could not sacrifice its economic partnership with China despite the importance of its alliance with the US.

Critics say such a position might prove unviable in the long run with the US set to continue to push South Korea and other allies to join its campaign to keep China’s rise in check.

South Korea would have too much to lose from being alienated from a set of economic and security frameworks Washington is building with like-minded countries against Beijing.

Ultimately, South Korea might find its economic partnership with China in advanced sectors is essentially based on key technologies patented by US companies.

As indicated by many pundits here, South Korea needs to recognize it could not walk the fine line between the US and China forever amid mounting and prolonged tensions between them. It should begin making long-term preparations to ensure its core interests.

But the Moon administration seems to be unready or feel no need to take this thorny strategic path.

Instead, it is absorbed in enlisting support from Washington for its blind pursuit of inter-Korean reconciliation, which could risk undermining efforts toward the complete denuclearization of the North.

In his prerecorded video speech for the annual UN General Assembly last week, Moon reiterated calls for a formal declaration ending the Korean War that ended with a truce in 1953, saying this would pave the way for lasting peace on the peninsula.

Moon and his aides had been trying to bar the North’s killing of a South Korean civil servant at the sea border a day before Moon’s speech was aired here from holding back their efforts to promote cross-border cooperation.

Pompeo’s visit to Seoul is preceded by a flurry of South Korean and US officials’ trips to each other’s countries.

Marshall Billingslea, special US presidential envoy for arms control, held talks with South Korean officials here Monday about how to cope with China’s arms buildup.

He was seen to seek Seoul’s cooperation in Washington’s push for the deployment of intermediary-range missiles in the region as a counterbalance against China’s buildup of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

A recent string of US visits by South Korean officials -- First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun, deputy national security adviser Kim Hyun-chong and top nuclear envoy Lee Do-hoon -- appeared aimed at drumming up US support for the Moon government’s efforts to enhance inter-Korean ties.

Upon arriving in Washington on Sunday, Lee said that he would talk with his US counterpart, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, who doubles as US point man on negotiations with Pyongyang, on the envisioned end-of-war declaration as well as the deadly incident at the inter-Korean maritime border.

Moon and his aides also appear to hope that yet another summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will be set up ahead of the US presidential election on Nov. 3.

They may wish to hear from Pompeo about a plan for a fourth meeting between Trump and Kim during his planned visit to Seoul next week.

But Pompeo’s visit, along with the ensuing one by Wang, is more likely to -- and should -- be a wake-up call for Seoul to make it recognize it could not keep the same distance from the two superpowers for an indefinite time.