The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] Balancing act between China-US not in Korea’s interest: Victor Cha

‘S. Korea can join democracy coalitions or deal with China on its own’

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : Jan. 5, 2022 - 14:20

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Victor Cha, a senior vice president at Washington-based think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Victor Cha, a senior vice president at Washington-based think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
South Korea should join the democratic coalitions designed to keep China in check, instead of hedging between the US and China, which could result in Seoul having to deal with Beijing alone, says Victor Cha, a former top adviser on North Korea in the George W. Bush administration.

“Hedging is not a long-term strategy for South Korea between the US and China. It does not help relations with either party and growing US-China competition will make it harder to hedge,” Cha said, when asked how sustainable South Korea’s diplomatic stance of strategic ambiguity is between the US and China, in an email interview with The Korea Herald. He is a senior vice president at Washington-based think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The US is building coalitions with like-minded democracies not to contain China but to prevent Chinese over-assertiveness as we have seen in the case of THAAD,” he said, referring to the US missile defense system deployed here. “South Korea can join these coalitions, or it can deal with China on its own. The latter is not in Korea’s strategic interests.”

Korea, in a broader sense, has been walking a tightrope between the two countries with the view of security with the US and economy with China. There are concerns that the burden on the Korean government may increase as the economy and security are increasingly difficult to separate.

Cha believes the South should make more efforts to restore the strained relationship with Japan to deal with challenges posed by China and North Korea.

“The most urgent issue (facing South Korea diplomatically) is North Korea’s growing nuclear threats. The most difficult longer-term strategic problem is the relationship with China. The most unnecessary problem has been the spiraling downward of relations with Japan,” he said. “Given the threats from China and North Korea, the relationship with Japan is important to improve.”

The relationship between Korea and Japan has been rocky for many years due to various issues, including Seoul’s demand for an apology for wartime sex slavery and forced labor issues and Japan’s push to release radioactive water into the ocean.

Regarding Moon Jae-in’s continued appeal for an end-of-war declaration to the 1950-53 Korean War, Cha understands the importance of convincing North Korea that the US and South Korea have no hostile intentions.

“But the US has provided more declarations of non-aggression, no first nuclear use, no-intention to attack, to North Korea than any other country in history. It’s actually quite extraordinary,” he said. “Adding another one cannot hurt, but I don’t think it will help either.”

Despite Moon’s continued efforts, the relationship of the two Koreas has soured since the no-deal Hanoi summit in 2019 between the US and the North. Agreements struck during the summits have never really come to fruition. North Korea blew up a joint liaison office with the South near the North’s border town of Kaesong. On Wednesday, the North fired a suspected ballistic missile into its eastern waters in violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions.

As for Seoul’s recent decision of not following Washington in a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics, Cha believes it will not negatively affect US-South Korea relations.

“I think Biden will not hold it against South Korea if Seoul does not boycott. It’s a decision that the US felt it needed to make, but others are not mandated to join it.”

The Korean Peninsula expert sees Moon’s most important diplomatic accomplishment as broadening the scope of the US-South Korea alliance to encompass issues like emerging technology, green growth and global health. “This engages new and relevant constituencies in the alliance’s future.”