Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the normalization of relations, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited China earlier this month. One theme at the talks was China’s longstanding request to open negotiations on a free trade agreement, boosting commerce beyond the current level of $207 billion and increasing the huge impact of China’s economy on a country with a GNP of roughly $1 trillion. A second issue was management of fishing in South Korean waters after recent violent clashes with emboldened Chinese crews.
Yet, there’s little doubt that the main item on the agenda, at least from South Korea's perspective, was the recent succession of Kim Jong-un after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, and the danger of increased instability on the Korean Peninsula. And, looming over all this, were concerns that mutual distrust has turned into mutual distaste. Sino-South Korean relations have, after all, been on a downward spiral since 2008.
The push by China to conduct FTA talks won agreement from Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda during his December visit to Beijing and from Lee at this month’s summit. Three-way negotiations should therefore begin at the annual trilateral summit in the spring. Given Lee’s recent success in the Korean-U.S. FTA and Noda’s later decision to try to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, some balance is kept by negotiating in this manner with China, their principal trade partner. The leaders set a target for 2015 of $300 billion in Sino-South Korean trade, which would trail Sino-Japanese trade, but would be about twice as large on a per capita basis. Yet FTA talks aren’t expected to be easy, given agricultural sensitivities and nervousness about how China may use its increasing economic clout. Difficulty in reaching an FTA with Japan could impact South Korean willingness to proceed with China, yet avoiding an image of slighting China serves a useful purpose, especially when relations have cooled.
In seeking to engage China on North Korea, Lee was following the example of U.S. President Barack Obama, who in Hu’s state visit to the United States a year earlier had put North Korea at the top of the agenda. But whereas Obama could claim at least minimal success, Lee was in a weaker position to make his case. In January 2011, Hu sought a positive outcome in his meeting with Obama after a year of Sino-U.S. tensions, failed policies in East Asia that had damaged China’s reputation, and the November 2010 North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong Island that had elicited a warning of military retaliation jointly by South Korea and the United States if such aggression occurred again. Even then, tense Sino-U.S. talks had gone to the final hours before China gave its approval for minimally acceptable wording. Obviously, Lee had no such leverage to persuade Hu, given South Korea’s greater dependency on China and the changing regional circumstances.
Tensions over North Korea have intensified. The Chinese insist that their policy aims to maintain peace and stability on the peninsula, prioritizing that over a process of denuclearization. While many Chinese accuse South Korea of undermining stability, they insist that its leaders express gratitude for China's efforts. On the other side, South Koreans are split between the security community, which fears that China is plotting to use the North Korean threat as a tool to reshape regional security and gain control over inter-Korean relations, and the progressive opposition, which blames Lee for taking too hard a line toward both North Korea and China while calling for more reliance on China. Lee has to tread gingerly given the unpopularity of the conservatives, as National Assembly elections will be followed by presidential ones.
Whereas China calls on South Korea to reconcile with North Korea, presumably on terms desired by the North, South Korea calls on China to use its influence on North Korea to prevent further belligerence.