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Gaps to fill in ‘ironclad’ alliance between Korea, US

President Moon Jae-in (center), US Secretary of State Blinken, Defense Secretary Austin, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung and Defense Minister Suh (from left to right) pose for a photo at Cheong Wa Dae, March 18, 2021. (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in (center), US Secretary of State Blinken, Defense Secretary Austin, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung and Defense Minister Suh (from left to right) pose for a photo at Cheong Wa Dae, March 18, 2021. (Yonhap)

South Korea and the US have held the first foreign policy talks since US President Joe Biden came to power, but the two allies fell far short of reaching consensus on the reason the US secretaries of state and defense flew to Asia in their first overseas travel: China and North Korea.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken labeled China authoritarian and a challenge that a democratic coalition should try pushing back, referring to its key allies in the region such as Korea and Japan. The two US secretaries visited Japan before taking part in the two-day talks here that began Wednesday.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin backed the top US envoy, saying Washington is eager to work with Seoul to engage in long-term competition with Beijing, which he said presented unprecedented challenges to the rules-based international order.

Korea did not openly stand behind the fiery rhetoric, but related to the world order anchored by the rule of law. The move was an attempt to find the middle ground without upsetting neither its ally in which it has an “ironclad alliance” with, nor China.

Seoul relies on US firepower to rein in aggression from Pyongyang, but its economic ties to China are too big to break. It also learned a lesson in 2016, when Korea had to endure economic retaliations from China for hosting the US missile defense system THAAD.

China, which claims that THAAD is a threat to its security, refuses to this day to acknowledge or make up for the unwarranted blowback from the South’s search for better defense against the North Korean missiles.

“We’re not on the same page on China. We need to reduce the gap; otherwise, nothing gets solved,” said Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.

South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong disagreed that it was a matter of black-and-white, previously saying, “It is unimaginable for us to pick either the US or China. We cannot bring ourselves to stick to that angle.” Chung had told a local news outlet that neither country has demanded Korea pick a side.

“Then give the impression that we stand by the US. Do it smart, so the US gets us while China can’t shoot us in the back. If we want US help to deal with the North and we do, we throw them what it wants to where it needs,” said Choi Kang, acting president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank in Seoul.

Seoul and Washington do not stand shoulder to shoulder on approaches toward inviting a nuclear-free North Korea, either.

Chung, who was one of those who facilitated the first talks between the US and the North in 2018, essentially stood in disagreement with Blinken, when the top Korean diplomat suggested Washington and Pyongyang renew their engagement from the Singapore summit agreement.

Blinken, who said he will look at both dialogue and sanctions, has not once addressed the 2018 summit. Experts said that was because he shared concerns that the summit was filled with empty promises on Pyongyang’s denuclearization. North Korea has not reversed its nuclear-first policy.

Another reason was that the US was more invested in containing what it considers an increasingly belligerent China that is looking to expand influence in the region.

“What Blinken and Austin said was all about China. North Korea appears several times but comes out only as part of the bigger agenda on China, where Blinken asks it to play a larger role,” said Hong Min, director of the North Korean division at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a Unification Ministry think tank.

There was no talk of support, either, for the inter-Korean projects the South is keen on reviving for a breakthrough in frayed inter-Korean ties, he added.

Meanwhile Seoul and Washington has again found themselves at odds over North Korea’s rights abuses, which Blinken said had been condoned under the “repressive government.” The South Korean government has refrained from calling out the North on the issue because it has refused to deal with it.

“We have our concern for that matter but we have a lot to go over first,” a senior Cheong Wa Dae official said without elaboration. He added, “We could see rights conditions improve there while we make progress on building peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

Kang Kyung-wha, Chung’s predecessor who served as the inaugural foreign minister under President Moon Jae-in, had said human rights issues were not the priority when dealing with North Korea.

“We can’t totally rule out the US help for Moon’s peace initiative to engage the North, given the US policy review on North Korea is still underway,” said Kim Hyung-suk, who served as South Korea’s vice unification minister between 2016 and 2017.

“But yes, North Korea would have to make a gesture first to get the initiative up and running. Though I can’t say when or if that will happen soon during Moon’s tenure.” Moon leaves office in May next year.

By Choi Si-young (