How China-US Competition Factors Into Moon’s Final Inter-Korea Push

Recent Features

Features | Security | East Asia

How China-US Competition Factors Into Moon’s Final Inter-Korea Push

Major interconnected shifts are underway on the Korean Peninsula, from a looming end-of-war declaration to South Korea’s involvement in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy.

How China-US Competition Factors Into Moon’s Final Inter-Korea Push

A boy watches a screen showing a photo from the April 27, 2018, inter-Korean summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, at the Unification Observation Post in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea, Monday, Oct. 4, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

Recently there have been several indications of movement in the political and military situation of the Korean Peninsula: President Moon Jae-in’s last-ditch attempt to foster his Korea Peace Initiative (KPI), announced in 2017; U.S. pressure on Moon’s administration to become more deeply and reliably involved with the U.S.-led efforts to counterbalance China’s military expansionism in Indo-Pacific region; North Korean criticism of the U.S. for double standards with respect to North Korea and Taiwan; a change in North Korean policy toward the U.S. and South Korea, no longer characterizing them as enemies, despite the continuing state of war; ongoing South Korean endeavors to act as a bridge between North Korea and the U.S., with Moon trying to ensure Washington will be sympathetic to his chosen successor at a time of profound political and social change in South Korea; and the extraordinary tit-for-tat competition between the two Koreas in developing and testing ballistic missiles.

Moon has launched several policy initiatives during his presidency. Besides the KPI, which is intended to bring an end to seven decades of “endless war,” there is also his New Northern Policy and his New Southern Policy (NSP). To some extent these policies are interwoven with one another, and they also affect the feasibility of South Korea’s contributing toward implementing the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy.

The bottom line is that Moon wants more strategic autonomy for South Korea to decide for itself how best to balance between the U.S. and China, even while both superpowers are trying to consolidate their allies and partners into stronger and more formalized arrangements. Recently Moon appears to have bravely tilted toward the U.S. side, in hopes of advancing his KPI with an end-of-war declaration.

In South Korea’s domestic political context, the outcome of the forthcoming presidential election, set for March 9, 2022, is very uncertain. Although Moon has obtained some leverage with the United States by engaging more with its Indo-Pacific Strategy, his party, the Democratic Party of Korea, has just selected Lee Jae-myung as its candidate, and Lee is perceived as leaning more toward accommodating North Korea and China, with some characterizing his foreign policy stance as anti-U.S. and anti-Japanese.

The South Korea alliance will also be affected by recent significant military and security developments, notably the testing of the Hyunmoo 4-4 indigenous submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on October 15, and then of the Nuri space launch vehicle on October 21. Nuri will be used to launch next-generation small military satellites and constellations to improve preparedness for future wars. The growing military clout of South Korea was also seen at the Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition (ADEX), held in July 2021, at which South Korea held bilateral and multilateral talks on defense cooperation with ASEAN and many South Asian and Latin American nations.

These advances will allow the South Korean military to play a more independent role in conducting a combined defense posture against China and North Korea. The alliance with the United States will remain the cornerstone of South Korea’s defense policy, but the U.S. will be less dominant within the alliance. Responding to concerns about the North Korean nuclear threat, many pundits are suggesting that South Korea should build nuclear-powered submarines, and even develop its own nuclear warheads for use on SLBMs and short-range ballistic missiles. This would raise formidable difficulties, both political, with the U.S. and advocates of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and also technical, with the enrichment of uranium fuel and other challenges.

Many commentators expect U.S. President Joe Biden to reward Moon for his agreement to become more closely involved with the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Strategy to contain China. The South Korean military is rumored to be preparing practical implementation of Moon’s commitment, by cooperating with ASEAN, Turkey, and India, and perhaps with Japan and Australia. The United States has always been equivocal about Moon’s KPI, perceiving it as a kind of meddling between North Korea and the U.S., so what kind of reward can Biden offer Moon? And will it be timed to influence the South Korean presidential election?

Change Is Afoot

There are various indications that military and security changes are underway.

First, the South Korean military has begun to cooperate more, albeit indirectly, with Japan. The 20th Korea-U.S. Integrated Defense Dialogue (KIDD) meeting, held on September 27-28, agreed to establish a working-level consulting group on interconnection and interoperability that will identify commonalities between South Korea’s NSP and the U.S. Indo-Pacific policy. The group may provide input for the forthcoming 53rd Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) between the two countries’ defense ministers, Suh Wook and Lloyd Austin, to be held in Seoul in early December. There is speculation that the new working group may lead to South Korea joining Quad Plus, or an AUKUS-like trilateral security cooperation format with Japan and the U.S., using the NSP as a pretext. On September 29, local media reported that 20th KIDD conducted tabletop exercises to explore countermeasures against North Korea’s Hwasong-8 hypersonic cruise missile, based on the concept of 4D (detect, disrupt, destroy, defend). Significantly, the exercise reportedly included Japan’s ballistic missile defense system.

Second, an essential aspect of Moon’s KPI is an end-of-war declaration, and it seems that Japan is involved in talks about this possibility. U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and the director of the CIA, Williams Burns, visited Seoul on October 17-18 for meetings with the director of the South Korean National Intelligence Service, Park Jie-won, and the director of the Japanese Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office, Takizawa Hiroaki.

Although no details about the meeting have been released, an end-of-war declaration is widely considered to be imminent. During September and October, there have been numerous meetings presumed to concern an end-of-war declaration, in Seoul, Tokyo, Washington, New York, and Indonesia, involving senior personnel from the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China.

Third, it is remarkable that Japan’s new prime minister, Kishida Fumio, allowed his intelligence minister to attend the recent meeting in Seoul with his South Korean and U.S. counterparts. This is despite Kishida’s strongly sustaining the historical rifts between South Korea and Japan, which have been getting worse since 2017. Perhaps better days are ahead for the Japan-South Korea relationship, with the U.S. mediating to repair it. It is noteworthy that there have been no further moves to claim compensation for conscripted wartime laborers, which is currently the main source of the friction between South Korea and Japan.

Fourth, the South Korean military has begun to play a more conspicuous role beyond the Korean Peninsula, conducting various activities to support the security capabilities of ASEAN countries and some other nations. This is in line with Moon’s NSP, but also demonstrates South Korea’s commitment to the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, especially through defense-industrial cooperation. For example, at the Seoul ADEX, ROK Army and Air Force officers, and also defense ministry officials, held many meetings with high-level military leaders from ASEAN to discuss the articulation of the NSP.

Fifth, the South Korean military has enhanced its capabilities to support U.S. space and cyber operations, for example by setting up countermeasures against cyberattacks originating in Russia and China. The launch of Nuri was also expedited, despite concerns about preparedness, which were somewhat justified by the failure to put a dummy payload into orbit. In advance of the 53rd SCM, South Korea is clearly trying to demonstrate its advanced technological capacities, in order to reassure the United States that future of the alliance is secure. The ROK Air Force has plans for several kinds of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting satellites to be operating by 2027.

Moon’s Next Steps

So, what can we expect from South Korea for the rest Moon’s term?

First, an end-of-war declaration may well be announced before Moon leaves office in May 2022, perhaps as early as the G-20 meeting in Rome at the end of October. Some see the declaration as a North Korean trick to pry apart the South Korea-U.S. alliance, while others see an opportunity for South Korea and the United States to lighten the burden of their constant military defense against North Korea. If the declaration is not made at the G-20, then the 53rd SCM in Seoul between the South Korean and U.S. defense ministers is another possibility. Indeed, there are probably ongoing discussions about the precise terms of the declaration, how it will be interpreted by North Korea and China, and the legal impact on U.S. Forces Korea and U.N. Command.

Second, Moon will make further commitments to South Korean alignment with the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, going beyond the joint statement from the May 2021 Biden-Moon summit in Washington. For example, ROK Navy recently conducted naval exercises with the EU and Oman in the Indian Ocean, confirming South Korea’s capacity to join multilateral naval drills, in this case to practice anti-piracy operations. Also, at the South Korean parliamentary audit for 2021, just completed, the ROK Navy argued that its plans to build a light aircraft carrier will make an important contribution to the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Third, there will be new confidence-building measures between the militaries of the two Koreas, to further arms control. There may also be non-military developments. Since Kim and Moon signed the 9/19 agreement, scholars and experts sympathetic to North Korea have proposed a wide variety of follow-up measures, such as setting up a Peace Park in the DMZ, reopening train links between the two Koreas, rebuilding the inter-Korean liaison office, and reopening Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea.

What Do These Changes Mean for China?

Finally, what are the implications for China? Surely the Chinese have noticed that Moon is shifting South Korea’s foreign policy stance.

Currently, China is distracted by the Taiwan situation. The United States has organized large-scale multilateral naval exercises nearby, and China responded by demonstrating its superiority in regional air power. North Korea also offered a surprisingly vehement criticism of U.S. policy on Taiwan, but at present China has bigger problems to deal with than the Korean Peninsula. After all, Biden recently stated unequivocally that the United States was committed to defending Taiwan against China, and then the White House walked it back with a claim that the U.S. policy of ambiguity was unchanged.

However, China will be an important part of renewed dialogue on the Korean Peninsula. The only condition set by North Korea for talks with the U.S. is that U.N. sanctions against North Korea must be lifted. North Korea is especially upset by U.N. Security Council Resolution 2397, which it considers an act of war, and China, which voted for the resolution, may have a role in persuading the United States to lift it. China will therefore likely take part in any talks about North Korean issues, directly or at least as an observer.

Moon’s recent speech to the U.N. General Assembly proposed four-party talks between the two Koreas, the United States, and China. China should agree to take part. All of these countries should endorse an end-of-war declaration, which would be a military and political bridge to mitigating tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Meanwhile, China continues to demonstrate its support for North Korea by providing it with modern advanced conventional weapons and systems. South Korean analysts noted the similarity of North Korea’s Hwasong-8 missile to China’s DF-17. Moon’s shift toward the United States could be seen as a warning to China to refrain from further military technological assistance to North Korea.

The South Korean government has been approached quietly by the United States to encourage Korean shipbuilding companies to become involved in Taiwan’s indigenous submarine project. Indeed, there have been recent rumors that Taiwan would like some South Korean companies to share advanced technologies provided by the United States, for example hypersonic missiles and SLBMs. If China wishes to forestall this possibility, then they would be well advised to join the four-party talks proposed by Moon.

China should also be more cautious in the South and the East China Seas, as its actions there are troubling to Seoul. Fearing that China may extend its gray zone strategy to the Yellow Sea and Ieodo (aka Socotra Rock), some South Korea analysts have argued for the ROK Navy to join the U.S.-led freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and also to transit through the Taiwan Strait, like Canada and the U.K. China would surely wish to avoid such developments.

In conclusion, there are many uncertainties affecting the situation on the Korean Peninsula, but it seems certain that changes are in the wind, caused by a confluence of factors: Moon’s attempts to secure his legacy, North Korean domestic turbulence, and U.S. pressure on Moon’s policy positions. Doubtless more will become clear following the 53rd SCM in Seoul in early December.