Last month, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, whose approval rating has never been lower, made the surprising decision to appoint Kim Jang-soo, a former four-star Army general, as ambassador to China. Was it a wise choice? The leaders of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have been disturbed by the possible U.S. deployment of an advanced defensive weapons system on South Korean soil, and also by a new military intelligence sharing agreement between Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. China’s military feels threatened by the technological superiority of the US, and fears becoming strategically encircled by an informal but effective ballistic missile defense (BMD) system; Korea is being seen as a strategic buffer zone, as it so often has been in the past. A rift has been developing between the Chinese and South Korean militaries, which could derail the strategic cooperative partnership between China and South Korea. The most urgent task facing the new ambassador is therefore to calm Chinese fears, and to get the relationship back on track.
The strategic partnership between Beijing and Seoul is progressing well, but has recently hit a rocky patch after some third-party interference. This was not by the usual suspect, North Korea, but by the U.S., South Korea’s closest ally, and by Japan, its intractable neighbor. Despite building stronger commercial and political relations with Beijing, Seoul has not forgotten its debt to Washington for the support the U.S. gave during the Korean War. And Japan is far too sensitive about China and South Korea renewing their historical ties, imagining an anti-Japanese conspiracy.
For the U.S., Japan’s primary role has been as a guard dog to warn against Chinese threats and North Korean military misbehavior, but Japan has found a new mission recently: sneaking to the U.S. to complain about South Korea mixing with a bad crowd, namely China. Tokyo has been trying to persuade Washington to pressure South Korea to back off from its rapprochement with China. But a quarter of South Korea’s external trade involves China, an improved free trade agreement has just been agreed, and Chinese tourism to South Korea is growing rapidly. While Seoul is happy to coordinate its security arrangements with Washington and Tokyo, this democratic alliance cannot erase the burden of history: Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea is very much a live issue, with unresolved questions about Korean victims of forced labor and World War Ⅱ “comfort women.”
Since late last year there have been some indications that the U.S. is buying into the Japanese view of relations between China and South Korea, but the latter remains a staunch U.S. ally. Park’s vision for the 21st century is clear from her National Security Strategy published last year: It mentions “middle-power diplomacy” and coping with the “Asia Paradox.” In practice though, South Korea’s rapprochement with China is not being disrupted by diplomatic pressures, but by technological advances in weapons systems.
Two events have caused the PLA particular anxiety. First, during the keynote speech of a forum held in Seoul last June General Curtis Scaparrotti recommended the deployment of THAAD in preference to South Korea’s indigenous Korea Air Missile Defense (KAMD). Then, last December the U.S., Japan and South Korea signed the tri-national accord on military intelligence sharing. The PLA interprets these moves as revealing U.S. and Japanese plans to link up all their sensors, interceptors, and communications assets dispersed throughout the Asia-Pacific region into a comprehensive and integrated BMD system to interdict Chinese missiles during the early phases of their trajectory. The PLA is wary of U.S. intentions, having seen a similar situation on the borders of Russia. The U.S. tried to deploy THAAD to Europe, in Poland and Romania, which are close enough to engage with all classes of Russian ballistic missiles in their boost and ascent phases.
The PLA sees the U.S. acquiring the capacity to detect air and missile trajectories over China as a threatening aspect of the U.S. rebalance to Asia. Although Washington claims THAAD is only intended to deter North Korean WMD threats, the PLA is worried that the Korean Peninsula will become the frontline of a U.S. containment strategy. The Chinese military leadership considers the deployment of ground-based interceptors, and adding Aegis surface combatants in and around Japan and South Korea, as a game changer that undermines the so-called “New Type of Big Power Relationship” between China and U.S. South Korean Joongang Ilbo reported on February 6, 2015 that Chinese President Xi Jinping had clearly addressed his concerns about THAAD deployment in South Korea during his summit with Park last July. China fears that its short- and medium-range ballistic missiles would be neutralized by the extended coverage of THAAD and related systems, such as AN/TPY-2.
Relations between China and South Korea have made remarkable strides, most notably in their close military-to-military interactions, despite the strident protests of North Korea. In the past year, both Xi and the PLA top brass chose to visit Seoul before going to Pyongyang. However, this military-to-military cooperation is under stress as south Korea tries to balance its long-established security relationship with the U.S. and its strategic cooperative partnership with China. Beijing seems to be worried that South Korea’s involvement in a military entente with Japan and the U.S. is directed at China, not North Korea, and is ultimately designed to encircle China. Moreover, the alignment of Washington, Seoul and Tokyo to create a sort of axis of democracies has seized the attention of China’s political leaders as well as its military strategists.
Park’s grand strategy advocates the separation of political and economic policies. From this perspective, China and South Korea are natural neighbors who should cooperate; China is South Korea’s primary emerging market, whereas Japan is a direct competitor for inbound investment and access to resources. Inevitably, however, tension arises between South Korea’s geo-economic ties with China and its geopolitical alliance with the U.S. So far, Park has managed to juggle these two successfully, but can she continue to keep both balls in the air now that China is reacting so strongly to the possible deployment of THAAD on South Korean soil and the recent tri-national military intelligence accord?
If China’s relationship with South Korea is to be derailed, then the PLA will be the prime mover. The Chinese Defense Minister also made clear, during the bilateral talks in Seoul last month, that the PLA is trying to mend the breach with North Korea. And this is despite the news, revealed in a South Korean Defense White Paper on January 6, that Pyongyang appears to have made significant progress in miniaturizing its nuclear warheads and in developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles. So Park, rather than choosing a high-profile diplomat specializing in China affairs for her next ambassador, went for a richly experienced military veteran who has already established personal relationships with PLA leaders through several military and security channels.
The new ambassador, Kim Jang-soo, has a hawkish reputation on China and North Korea, and he comes from a distinctly pro-U.S. faction within the military. He has held various security-related positions under Park and her two predecessors, including deputy commander of the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command, Army Chief of Staff, and Minister of National Defense. Most recently, he was chief of the National Security Office. There have been contrasting comments on his appointment from Beijing and Seoul: Kim should act quickly to tamp down talk of deploying THAAD to reinforce the strategic cooperative partnership; as the first military officer to become ambassador since full diplomatic relations were established, he should listen carefully to the PLA’s views on future military relations, following several decades of missed opportunities. This critical role will require effective communication with the PLA leadership if relations between China and South Korea are to continue progressing smoothly.
First, Kim should prioritize the consolidation of the strategic cooperative partnership between China and South Korea, and the PLA must buy into this project. South Korea’s trade with China has already surpassed that with Japan and the U.S., and South Korea’s economic dependence on China should demonstrate that South Korea can be trusted with substantial strategic autonomy: its geostrategic value as a traditional buffer zone means that China need not be overly concerned about South Korea maintaining, or even strengthening, its relations with the U.S. and Japan. After a historic presidential summit last July, there was evidence of a renewed effort from both countries’ militaries to explore new approaches, and Kim should work to restore this more welcoming attitude on the part of the PLA.
Second, Kim should work to persuade PLA leadership that North Korean WMDs represent a threat of the utmost gravity, to which the deployment of THAAD is a proportionate response. The PLA must understand that South Korea faces an existential peril, and if THAAD was installed on South Korean soil it would only be aimed at deterring North Korea. Of course, if the PLA was able to more effectively constrain its North Korean client, this would do much to improve regional security and contribute toward the peace and stability that all sensible parties, including China, wish to see.
Third, at present, China feels militarily vulnerable to the U.S. and even to Japan, which is understandable. Thanks to its vast defense budget, the U.S. has the world’s most sophisticated high-tech military and can project power into Asia. Japan is also now seeking to raise its game, and the U.S.-based Naval Institute Newsletter recently featured an article on “Japan’s Emerging Defense Export Industry.” Japan has also transferred ships and naval equipment to the Philippines and Vietnam, countries with which China robustly disputes territory in the South China Sea. With his wealth of military experience, Kim should reassure China that South Korea is not an enemy, and has no interest in working with any other parties to undermine Chinese military security.
Finally, and most importantly, the new ambassador should show far more flexibility than his military background and his previous behavior would lead us to expect. Kim earned notoriety for not bowing when he shook the hand of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, the kind of simplistic adherence to principles that will not do in his new appointment. The ROK-U.S. security alliance needs to be balanced very carefully against the strategic cooperative partnership between China and South Korea, and the ambassador should remember that both are equally vital to the national security and broader interests of South Korea.
Kim has apparently spoken to his PLA colleagues about the need to reduce tensions between the Chinese and South Korean militaries, which is a promising sign. Despite the difficulties arising from the involvement of third parties, China and South Korea must continue to develop their strategic cooperative partnership. Unless the new ambassador can find a way to rebuild trust between China and South Korea, there is a serious risk of some kind of economic or political conflict arising, which would be a tragedy for both countries, and also for the wider world.
Sukjoon Yoon is a retired navy captain and a senior research fellow of the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy. He is also a visiting professor at the Department of Defense System Engineering, Sejong University, Seoul, Korea.