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North Korea Factor Fades Amid Seoul’s Trilateral Engagement

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North Korea Factor Fades Amid Seoul’s Trilateral Engagement

South Korea’s current diplomatic strategy is overlooking its greatest security threat.

North Korea Factor Fades Amid Seoul’s Trilateral Engagement

From left: South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, U.S. President Joe Biden, and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio pose for an official photo before their trilateral meeting at Camp David, Maryland, Aug. 18, 2023.

Credit: Official White House Photo by Erin Scott

The foreign ministers of China, Japan, and South Korea met in Busan in November 2023, their first meeting since 2019. Their once-regular trilateral meetings had been on a four-year hiatus. While significant in its own right, the foreign minister meeting failed to give an exact date for the next trilateral leaders meeting, signaling that Beijing is not in a rush for a full-scale summit. 

This get-together becomes crucial when countries are juggling a particular question: How do they manage relations with China? Many countries, including South Korea’s allies and partners, have frustrated themselves while solving this strategic enigma. U.S. President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese have each met with Chinese President Xi Jinping seeking common ground. Still, not much has come out of these efforts. 

Some countries in the region are trying to face the challenge by balancing between preferring ties with the United States and trade and commerce with China. But for South Korea, considerations go beyond the trade-offs while engaging with the two blocs. Seoul’s priority is – or should be – figuring out how to address its primary security threat: North Korea. 

Currently, Seoul is focused on leveraging two different trilaterals – Japan-South Korea-U.S. and China-Japan-South Korea – to manage its economic and national security priorities. But, in the process, it risks avoiding the regional big picture, which is crucial to addressing the North Korean challenge. 

China-Japan-South Korea: Aiming to Restart Engagement 

With the revival of the trilateral with China, Seoul is attempting to lay down ground rules with Beijing to remove any misreading and attempt to make progress in bilateral relations. Seoul hopes trilateral institutionalization will help resolve trade and commerce issues, which have risen since the United States imposed tech restrictions on Beijing. 

In its effort to re-adjust its foreign policy, Seoul recognizes the rising uncertainty due to U.S. domestic politics and Pyongyang’s rising adventurism. At the same time, it wants to avoid “strategic entrapment” – the risk of getting pulled into a U.S. security commitment – a possibility that has only increased as Washington reaches bipartisan consensus on the China question. 

However, China is not necessarily reading the situation the same way as Seoul does. It wants to use the trilateral as leverage to shape Seoul’s behavior. Agreeing to a full summit is a way for China to dissuade its investment partners in East Asia from engaging in either the de-risking or decoupling process. At the July 2023 International Forum for Trilateral Cooperation, seen as a precursor to the full restart of the trilateral mechanism, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi invited South Korea and Japan to “board the express train of China’s high-quality development.”

Engaging with South Korea and Japan in a trilateral is a way for Beijing to restart cooperation at the regional level, which it sees necessary for its security and regional stability. This engagement was fast-tracked due to Beijing’s concern regarding the strengthening relations between South Korea and Japan. Beijing thought the honeymoon phase between Seoul and Tokyo would break under the weight of historical and legacy issues such as forced labor, “comfort women,” the Fukushima wastewater discharge, continued Yasukuni shrine visits by Japanese politicians, and territorial disputes. However, that wish failed. This has forced Beijing to change its language and strategy. 

After weighing the pros and cons, China realized it could not afford to antagonize another neighbor like it has with the Philippines. As a result, Beijing is softening its relations with Seoul, a critical global leader in emerging technology and innovation. The goal is to ensure that China’s economic interests are not compromised due to the rising anti-China debate. At the same time, Seoul also sees the trilateral as a platform to engage with China. The overall aim of Seoul and Beijing is to maintain stability in their relations; isolating their ties from broader trends and revitalizing the China-Japan-South Korea trilateral is a step in that direction. 

However, in this effort from both sides, the North Korea challenge has not received the same level of attention as it did under the earlier Moon administration in its trilateral engagement with Beijing. The focus is likely first to restart the trilateral rather than getting into the details of the issue that matters for Seoul. 

Also, under President Yoon Suk-yeol, there has been a systematic sidelining of Beijing as the preferred partner to address the North Korean challenge. Instead, preference is given to the United States as a security ally to address the Pyongyang threat, prioritizing South Korea-U.S. relations and the Japan-South Korea-U.S. trilateral.

Japan-South Korea-U.S.: Aiming to Expand Engagement 

Even the U.S.-led trilateral, which started as an attempt to enhance cooperation between the United States and its East Asian treaty allies to counter North Korean aggression, has now expanded its agenda beyond the Korean Peninsula. As the trilateral agenda expanded beyond the North Korean issue, Seoul was made to confront the China question directly, which it has long avoided, even in its bilateral engagement with Beijing. 

Many analysts have looked closely at the trilateral cooperation between the United States, Japan, and South Korea to observe Seoul’s Indo-Pacific strategy commitment and regional security. Although the United States was pleased by the improved relations with its East Asian allies, how committed Seoul was to U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific region was still a question in Washington. This doubt was primarily due to South Korea’s economic entanglement with China. However, after Seoul demonstrated renewed trust in alliance interests, we have seen the U.S. formulating a comprehensive strategy to constrain China’s access to strategic technologies, which needs broader cooperation from its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region. 

The United States has strengthened its cooperation with its allies into new domains, forming a new security umbrella vision. To implement this vision in Northeast Asia, the trilateral agenda has expanded since 2022, including new domains of cooperation – defense, space, cyber, economy, and technology. The trilateral has even highlighted Seoul’s alliance compulsion in its diplomatic statements – a factor that was quietly stated behind closer doors previously. South Korea’s shift in approach toward, for example, Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea – from Seoul’s first standalone statement to the trilateral statement at Camp David – points toward a change in South Korea’s approach, coming out of this alliance compulsion. 

In this bargain, South Korea has made remarkable progress in strengthening its regional cooperation with Japan and the United States at the highest level, particularly on the North Korean challenge, standing together on the same page. The Japan-South Korea-U.S. trilateral initially restarted in June 2022 with an established common ground and a shared objective, particularly to address the “evolving threat posed by [North Korea’s] unlawful weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile program.” 

However, the trilateral is now moving to the next stage of regional comprehensive security and economic cooperation. This has put China at the center stage of the discussions. Initially, the focus was on the Korean Peninsula, and North Korea’s challenge, even though views were exchanged on China. But recently we have seen a shift in the trilateral’s focus, which points toward U.S. strategic goals, and thus risks compromising Seoul’s interests. The new stance also starkly contrasts with the agenda last shared in the 2017 trilateral meeting, where security was mentioned at the end of the sentence, and China and its role were seen positively in the context of the North Korean issue. 

All this shows that the trilateral agenda has become quite malleable under the Indo-Pacific geopolitical dynamics, which risks undermining attempts to counter the rising threat from North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic weapons program. 

Pursuing Closer Security Engagement With the U.S. 

The Yoon administration’s foremost priority was navigating the dilemma of dependence on the Chinese economy and strengthening the South Korea-U.S. alliance, aiming to address its economic growth and security simultaneously. In this scenario, stronger trilateral cooperation with the United States and Japan promised greater security for South Korea and a more committed U.S. alliance than ever before. Conversely, a trilateral relationship with China was seen as helping ensure its economic security, stable relations with Beijing, and stability in the Korean Peninsula. 

In this trilateral engagement, two obstacles have emerged for South Korea. First, the Japan-South Korea-U.S. trilateral, which was expected to strengthen security on the Korean Peninsula, has also contributed to regional insecurity, forcing Pyongyang, Moscow, and Beijing to come together and form a new informal partnership. Second, what started as a careful management strategy, intending to avoid risking Seoul’s relations with Beijing and crossing any red lines – like the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea issues – while simultaneously expanding engagement with Seoul’s ally and partners beyond the region on security issues, has now sidelined the main threat South Korea faces, North Korea. This has put Seoul in a strategic bind.

The strategy adopted by Seoul ignored the implications of strengthening the U.S.-led trilateral, like altering the regional power dynamics, which has created more instability and, in effect, more regional insecurity. Nonetheless, under Yoon, Seoul will likely stick to the current path of engaging the United States and China in the two trilaterals. The approach under the conservative government in the current format aims to navigate Seoul’s political, security, economic, and technological challenges, clearly avoiding the core issue of solving the North Korea issue. 

However, going forward, if Seoul continues with the current security approach on the Korean Peninsula – sidelining China and preferring the U.S. – it will make the North Korean challenge harder to handle. We’ve seen evidence of this already, as in a recent meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and North Korean Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Pak Myong Ho, where they talked about further boosting “strategic and tactical cooperation” with each other. In addition, depending on the U.S., which has pursued an oscillating strategy toward Pyongyang, between Biden’s no engagement and Trump’s expected agnostic engagement, will likely end up putting Yoon in an awkward position.