Why Beijing-Seoul Ties So Fraught

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Why Beijing-Seoul Ties So Fraught

North Korea looms over ties between China and South Korea. Indeed, the future of the North Korean regime goes to the very heart of longstanding tensions.

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.

What Will Kim Jong-un Do?

North Korea was often in the news last year, due to Kim Jong-il's travels to China and Russia and the succession process, which accelerated suddenly with Kim Jong-un's elevation to a series of senior posts after his father’s death on December 17. South Korea scrambled to be seen as relevant, while China positioned itself to play a greater role after the succession. As 2012 begins, the two front-line states, which are in the midst of leadership transitions, can’t help but keep a wary eye on North Korea – and each other. The North’s actions in 2010 were a factor in widening the Sino-South Korean gap, and new warnings in response to Lee’s “disrespect” to Kim Jong-il, as seen in the delegation allowed to join in the mourning, suggests more tensions ahead.

If North Korea decides to make few waves and turn inward to allow Kim Jong-un and the coterie around him time to consolidate power, then this will almost certainly help Sino-South Korean relations. China has shown that it welcomes stability, and is supportive of Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy, promising more economic assistance during the transition.

Similarly, if North Korea decides instead to prioritize economic goals to smooth the transition, then an agreement with the United States to secure food assistance would become a prelude to resumption of the Six-Party Talks and renewed North-South cooperation. Given U.S. determination to proceed in lockstep with South Korea, the North isn’t likely to split the allies, but it may elicit competition between China and the South. Still, it’s difficult to imagine sufficient concessions from the North, a suitable reform agenda, and willingness to trust the South that are essential for this strategy. Without China applying pressure to transform the North, it’s more likely to follow a different path. The fact is that this scenario of reduced tensions appears optimistic given the military's dominant role and the way Kim Jong-un’s succession has started.

The third option for North Korea is to showcase its military advances by testing a nuclear weapon, perhaps a miniaturized one, and an intercontinental ballistic missile with threats of aggression. If the outcome in 2010 is a precedent, then this would do further harm to Sino-South Korean relations as well as Sino-U.S. relations. Lee would draw closer to the United States. Chinese leaders, in turn, would likely seek to keep North Korea from crossing their red line, which remains unspecified, while putting pressure on it to integrate more fully with China: intensifying high-level meetings, coordinating diplomacy, and agreeing to economic changes favorable to Chinese investments and joint economic zones. Lee sought to forestall the high likelihood of this outcome in 2012, but his administration has come to recognize its limited leverage. Rather than accept this reality, progressives are desperately going back to the idealism of the Roh Moo-hyun administration in imagining a “balancer” role between the United States and China.   

And then there’s the Iran factor. In the first months of 2012, the showdown over Iran is set to take international center stage. China’s response to the showdown with Tehran will set the tone for its approach to North Korea and the perceptions of its intentions. If it should coordinate on controlling the Iranian threat, then the prospects would surely be improved for coordination regarding North Korea. Yet, even a shared agenda for restarting the Six-Party Talks and regaining some of the momentum achieved in the Joint-Agreement of February 2007 would leave uncertainty about South Korean ties.

The core of Sino-South Korean distrust isn’t North Korea’s nuclear weapons, but the future of North Korea and of sinocentric regionalism. Is North Korea, above all, a fragment of a divided state with Korean national identity, or a socialist state with a shared identity forged from revolution, war, and alliance with China? Is the South Korean-U.S. alliance a factor for regional peace and stability, or an interfering Cold War legacy? Is South Korea a reliable supporter of universal values, or is it under the sway of “Western values” and untrue to its roots by orienting itself so unabashedly to the United States? These questions need to be answered in China, where the critique of South Korea has become heavily one-sided, and inside South Korea, where national identity is disputed through conflicting media sources and democratic elections. 

The Lee-Hu summit didn’t answer these questions or set a clear direction for ties in the third decade after the normalization of relations. It left South Koreans as well as Chinese waiting for economic talks, territorial management, and diplomacy in a multilateral context. Above all, they are waiting for North Korea and for the election results in South Korea.

The international community, meanwhile, is also waiting – not only for these developments, but also for clarity on the impact of China’s leadership transition on its policies toward Iran, North Korea, and the United States. Ultimately, Lee is only one of many leaders struggling to find common ground with a resurgent China.

Gilbert Rozman is Musgrave Professor of Sociology at Princeton University. His recent books include: 'Chinese Strategic Thought toward Asia, U.S. Leadership,' 'History and Bilateral Relations in Northeast Asia,' and 'East Asian National Identities: Commonalities and Differences.'