National security advisers from the US, South Korea and Japan had a three-way meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, Friday. Hours later, the foreign ministers of South Korea and China held talks in a southern Chinese city close to Taiwan.
The meeting of national security advisers was convened to secure cooperation from South Korea and Japan in the US plan to counter China, and to cement the solidarity of the three countries in the mission of denuclearizing North Korea.
The meeting of the South Korean and Chinese foreign ministers, proposed by Beijing, appears to reflect China’s intent to pull South Korea out of the US-led anti-China alliance.
At the meeting of national security advisers, South Korea is said to have called on the US to resume negotiations with North Korea. At the foreign ministers’ meeting, South Korea reportedly asked China to play a role in denuclearizing the North.
Considering that the North has stayed away from negotiations since its Hanoi summit with the US in February 2019 ended without a deal, calls for the resumption of negotiations seem legitimate to some extent. It is right to expect Beijing to play a role in denuclearizing the North, considering that China holds the lifeline for the North’s economy.
In the meantime, the situation on the Korean Peninsula has grown more strained.
North Korea has never ceased test-firing missiles or declaring that it will strengthen its nuclear armaments. US-China conflicts have become more acute. Besides, the US administration under President Joe Biden has distanced itself from the previous administration’s top-down approach to dialogue with the North.
It looks inevitable that strategy will have to adjust to the changing situation, but South Korea’s balance on the diplomatic tightrope appears to have changed little.
The administration under President Moon Jae-in avoids criticizing China, while showing a continued interest in reviving US negotiations with North Korea.
This shows an intention to pursue balanced diplomacy between the two superpowers. However, South Korea could lose the confidence of both sides if it keeps up a noncommittal attitude.
In the meeting with his South Korean counterpart, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reportedly said that North Korea’s reasonable anxiety about its security must be addressed. He said this to emphasize that North Korea’s regime must be guaranteed and that the sanctions against the North must be eased. It is questionable if Beijing will play a helpful role in denuclearizing North Korea.
South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong said both sides had discussed a possible visit to South Korea by Chinese President Xi Jinping, but there was no mention of this in China’s statement. South Korea appears to be waiting unilaterally for Xi to visit.
China talks up South Korea as its permanent neighbor but acts differently. It has occasionally violated South Korea’s air defense identification zone without notice and mobilized its naval patrol ships close to South Korea’s territorial waters, raising suspicions about Beijing’s ambitions to extend its maritime boundary. Seoul needs to question whether it serves its interests to cater to Beijing.
The escalating US-China confrontation, coupled with Moon’s pro-China stance, puts South Korea in a delicate situation. From a diplomatic viewpoint, it cannot choose one outright, discarding the other. But when it comes to foreign policy, there is a basic principle to follow: South Korea must not forget how it managed to achieve rapid economic development while fending off North Korea’s threats. The bedrock of its survival and growth has been the US alliance.
South Korea needs to engage actively in exchanges and trade with China, but regarding security and related high-tech issues, it should clarify its position of alignment with the US.
The Moon administration has assumed a submissive attitude to North Korea to bring it to the negotiation table. But the Hanoi summit showed clearly that Pyongyang has no intention of denuclearizing.
Talks only for the sake of talks are meaningless. Dialogue is important, but sanctions are the only realistic means to deter North Korea’s threats. The first thing for South Korea to do is to figure out, with its allies, how to apply more effective sanctions against the North.