Park Geun-hye’s sober foreign policy choices in 2016 pointedly contrast with her much-lauded ambitions of 2014-2015. In this set of articles we make the comparisons, suggest reasons for the changes, and explore implications of this transformation. We ask: Was this an awakening from illusions to harsh realities? Was it a shift from Plan A to Plan B after a valiant attempt to maximize the prospects for success of Plan A? Or was this an unforeseeable betrayal by great powers of a well-conceived strategy? We also seek to predict whether the 2016 realignment is long-lasting or ephemeral?
Through most of 2015, the South Korean leadership and media viewed foreign policy in accord with three basic assumptions. First, it was important to keep the door to North Korea open, appealing to it with “trustpolitik” and satisfying China as well as Russia that diplomacy was in the forefront, while stoking their egos with images of a “honeymoon” between Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping and the “Eurasian Economic Initiative” to cater to Vladimir Putin’s priority for development of the Russian Far East. Second, repetition of claims that bilateral relations with the United States had never been better buttressed by ever-closer military ties could limit the fallout from clashes with Japan over the “comfort women” issue. Third, despite rising tensions in East Asia, South Korea had a growing opportunity as a middle power to promote multilateral diplomacy through a “Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative.” By the fall of 2016, these themes had virtually faded into oblivion. Realignment was occurring in South Korean foreign policy, which few had anticipated a year earlier.
The six, key symbols of Park’s middle power optimism were all widely acclaimed in 2015. “Trustpolitik” may not have been succeeding, but prior to the January 6, 2015 North Korean nuclear test, the idea that a “bonanza” from forthcoming reunification was within reach kept hopes alive that something positive would happen with North Korea. This looked quite rosy in the glow of the “honeymoon” with Xi, which many associated with the reassuring notion that Xi’s coolness to Kim Jong-un meant that he was tilting toward Seoul. Simultaneously, Park kept alive with Putin the promise of the “Eurasian Economic Initiative,” hoping that Russia would not be a stumbling block to regional diplomacy. Unique among world leaders in claiming warm ties to China and “best ever relations” with the United States, Park felt newly emboldened to launch NAPCI, putting her state at the nexus of region-building ready to overcome the Asian Paradox of economics hot, politics and security cold. Playing the “comfort women” card against Japan may have added a complication to the self-image of the bridge builder in Northeast Asia, but this seemed to be only a minor matter as it was useful in both the “honeymoon” and the national identity cause counteracting a still fractious Korean public. Few anticipated how quickly Park’s agenda would collapse.
There were signs that Park’s strategy was in trouble, but few took them seriously. It was expected that North Korean provocations would intensify, as its nuclear and missile build-up continued while its economy was managing to realize some growth. North Korea was not under a lot of pressure; its leader was feeling little restraint. In case of serious provocations, optimism about Sino-US coordination also should have been questioned since the South China Sea tensions were mounting in 2015. At this time, there were growing indications that Abe’s well-conceived management of the history issue during the 20th anniversary year along with his success in impressing the United States with steps to strengthen the alliance would leave Park under more pressure to reconcile with Abe and boost trilateralism. US-led sanctions against Putin, to which Park paid heed, were leaving her aloof from the Russian leader as Putin gave more attention to North Korea. These developments were only slowly registering on Korean media and public opinion; there were few signs of any course correction, as Park responded cautiously to Abe’s August 14 statement on history, attended Xi’s September 3 victory parade, and showcased NAPCI in preparations for her October 15 summit with Obama. She found a way to keep alive all her symbols.
First to fall was the “comfort women” card, abandoned by Park to the chagrin of many Koreans in return for the December 28 agreement with Abe. “Trustpolitik” was next to go, as Park responded to North Korea’s 4th nuclear test barely a week later with determination to sacrifice the last of the embers of the “Sunshine Policy.” Within weeks, the “honeymoon” with Xi had turned into disappointment, given his refusal to return her telephone calls. Hanging by the threads were the “Eurasian Economic Initiative,” which Russians assumed was gone due to the decision to no longer proceed with ROK-DPRK-Russian trilateral transportation projects, and NAPCI, although calls to reinvigorate it continued. South Koreans were left dazed by the abrupt turnabout in their foreign policy, even wondering if ROK-US ties were on track when Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric raised fear of abandonment. Sensing a far-reaching realignment, they had trouble figuring out its scope and how far it might lead. This situation begs for clarification, as more uncertainty arose due to the forthcoming elections first in the United States and then in South Korea.
The realignment was caused by a dead-end in the foreign policy initiatives pursued by Park. Kim Jong-un defied widespread expectations. Abe Shinzo outmaneuvered her. Xi disappointed her. Putin dismissed her. At the same time, Barack Obama had a clear agenda that beckoned in a different direction. In this set of articles, we explore the nature of the realignment in 2016, how it contrasts with South Korean policies in 2015, its causes, and some of its consequences. Seoul’s regional approach faces in six directions: 1) North Korea; 2) the United States; 3) China; 4) Japan; 5) Russia; and 6) Asian regional architecture. Comparing the Park administration’s approach in 2015 to that in the fall of 2016 points to an unusually abrupt shift of orientation.
The Collapse of Trustpolitik
In 2014-2015, there was more talk about reunification than in all the years since the Korean War. Park called it a “bonanza,” as if it would bring abundant benefits that easily outweighed the costs. Meetings centered on how South Korea should treat the remnants of the North Korean regime and its elite once the North had collapsed. The role of other countries was often minimized, as if they would defer to Seoul to steer the North toward a single, unified state. While trustpolitik carefully avoided the high rewards without demands for reciprocity of Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy and the even more generous variant of it by Roh Moo-hyun, it had been transformed into an optimistic scenario for realizing the deepest aspirations of the Korean people. As Kim Jong-un showed no sign of meeting the conditions set for trustpolitik, somehow South Koreans were persuaded to keep their hopes alive and imagine a rosy future.
President Lee Myung-bak had not raised similar expectations. Conservatives angry with the substantial funding of North Korea—assumed to have gone into its nuclear weapons and missile programs—had since 2008 refused to keep the coffers flowing, finding good reason to close the Kumgang-san tourist resort after a North Korean guard murdered one of the tourists. Yet, by keeping the Kaesong Industrial Complex operating, they had continued to provide vital revenue and to give China an excuse to expand its own economic dealings with North Korea. Without providing rewards for new talks, Seoul was carrying on business as usual with a threatening regime.
The fourth nuclear test in January, a spate of missile tests in 2016, the introduction of new weapons and platforms for weapons, and newfound awareness of US alarm that the US mainland was coming under threat, combined to shock Seoul that there is no alternative but deterrence and pressure, given dismal prospects for dialogue on terms that Seoul and Washington had long required. Raising the priority of defense, Seoul also raised the primacy of the United States as its partner in deterrence. In 2016, talks with North Korea grew more problematic, affecting all diplomatic ties.
The Reinforcement of the ROK-US Alliance, the Alienation from Russia, and the Rapprochement with Japan
In 2016, it became clear that one bilateral relationship stands far above others, but that this alliance bond is now more troubled than many had recognized. Recalling the insistent claims for the best ever relationship that preceded, observers pointed to four challenges that had proven irrepressible. The most obvious one was the split over how to respond to Japan’s reinvigorated defensive efforts and legal changes—an essential part of the Obama “rebalance” to Asia—, which many in South Korea saw as “remilitarization,” leading to last-minute rejection of direct intelligence sharing. While symbols of history—the Yasukuni Shrine, the “comfort women,” and Dokdo (Takeshima)—were the immediate objects of bilateral discord, US disappointment centered more on the impact on military preparedness. If for much of 2014 US ire was directed at Abe for needlessly arousing distrust by visiting Yasukuni, Abe was largely successful in meeting minimal expectations while Park was slower to adjust. It is hard to reconcile rosy words about ROK-US ties with tensions over trilateralism.
The second challenge was avoiding blame over failure to coordinate with the USA on the South China Sea (or East China Sea), as this hot spot appeared to eclipse North Korea as the most immediate threat of conflict. As the ROK-US alliance strengthened globally and remained robust in facing North Korea, its regional role seemed, more and more, to be out of sync. Just eliciting a statement of clear support for freedom of navigation proved to be a chore. Fearful of offending China on a matter secondary to the priority on North Korea, Seoul sought US understanding for its hesitation. Yet, the calls for Seoul to take a firm stand were mounting as China’s militarization and island-building on the South China Sea were raising deep concern already in 2014.
Third on the list of challenges was the question of how to respond to Russian moves in Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea and the orchestrated destabilization and low-grade war in Eastern Ukraine. Park prioritized US relations, not attending the Sochi Winter Olympic games despite the fact that South Korea would host the following Winter Olympics and skipping the May 9 Moscow victory day celebrations. She did not officially join in G7 sanctions, but some in Russia accused South Korea of abiding by them anyway. Yet, Seoul kept as a pillar of its foreign policy the Eurasian Economic Initiative amid reconstruction of a rail line from Khasan leading to Rason port in North Korea and transshipment of coal intended for Busan port in the South. Only in 2016 did Park’s decision to cut remaining economic ties to North Korea put an end to this project. When Park went to Vladivostok’s Eastern Economic Forum on September 2, she left no doubt that a fundamental change would have to occur in North Korea before Seoul recommitted to the development of the Russian Far East. This put her at odds with Putin, and suggested fuller coordination with Obama.
Finally, as the Sino-US relationship grew more competitive with elements of a cold war, straddling the fence was becoming more tenuous. Optimism in 2015 that Seoul could do so was increasingly at odds with reasoning in Washington that this was untenable. In January 2016, the fourth nuclear test led Seoul to draw closer to Washington to the displeasure of Beijing, and in July the THAAD decision meant defiance of Beijing. There still was some distance between US and ROK approaches to China, but the gap appeared to be widest when Park went to the Beijing military parade in September 2015 and narrowest a year later in light of Beijing’s wrath over the THAAD decision.
Japan-ROK relations have reached a turning point, which could be more far-reaching than earlier ones in the post-Cold War era. Security trumps history is the message. It is likely to persist if geopolitical tensions remain as serious as many anticipate. 2013 to 2015 saw historical memory stay in the forefront in this relationship, but there is reason to expect that the downplaying of this preoccupation in 2016 will endure. US insistence, the North Korean threat, and Japan’s priority for sustaining the current state of Japan-ROK ties all hold promise for continuation of the recent improvement.
The Break with China and the Blow to NAPCI
The break with China in 2016 was one-sided, as China drew red lines and reacted with fury when they were crossed. It revealed that, as in 2000-2003, in 2013-2015, the South Korean public had been under an illusion about China’s thinking. In 2004, that optimism was jolted by reports of Chinese historical writing on the Koguryo state, which, to some, cast in doubt the legitimacy of the Korean state in Chinese eyes. In 2016, China’s intentions toward North Korea were more directly challenged by its response to the fourth nuclear test, apparently prioritizing “stability” and a “peace regime” through negotiations—both favoring China’s interests in a surviving and strong North Korea—over denuclearization and stability through five states uniting to steer North Korea toward a peaceful path and regional integration. Fear of China retaliating economically or even of a revival of the “culture wars” during the tenure of Lee Myung-bak was little mentioned until 2016, when it abruptly drew attention.
Ties with China had deteriorated in 2010 over China’s unsympathetic responses to the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island attacks, but the rupture in 2016 far outweighed that. A critical difference was that China’s rhetoric toward South Korea had hardened. Another distinction was that South Koreans felt that more was at stake, given the way North Korea was behaving. A third factor may have been the spillover from other news of China’s assertiveness, which had been downplayed previously but not altogether ignored. The contrast between rather high hopes one year and disillusion the next may also have fueled resignation that a Sino-US balance is unachievable.
The impact of the new relationship with China dwarfs that of the change in relations with North Korea or the United States. Vigilance against the North and coordination with the United States remained the foundation of foreign policy in 2013-2015, while policy toward China was shifting abruptly from cultivating a “honeymoon” halo to being obliged to hurl “brickbats” in response to outrageous charges. Policies to other countries were unavoidably affected by China’s decision to demonize South Korea.
NAPCI has been premised on the assumption that Seoul has a special role to play in bringing together the countries of Northeast Asia, above all China and the United States. However, the Chinese response to Park in 2016 and the deteriorating state of Sino-US relations leave the path to NAPCI in shambles. As long as the divide in how to deal with North Korea remains unbridgeable, prospects for regionalism—even in a rudimentary form—are doubtful. Seoul needs to recalibrate its pursuit of this aim.
Article 1: Growing Threats and Shifting Policies
Progressives still urge Park to turn the South Korean cheek yet again in another feckless attempt at negotiating with Pyongyang. But she remains resolute in her determination to now impose penalties on North Korea for its serial violations of UN resolutions and defiance of the international community, argues Bruce Klingner. Park had devoted considerable political capital in ingratiating herself to China, even as she shunned a summit with Japan, only to have Xi Jinping refuse to even answer her phone call after Pyongyang’s January 2016 nuclear test. She has found that North Korean policy cannot go through Beijing; it requires realigning based on the ROK-US alliance as is ongoing. This is the seen in her new approach toward North Korea, China, and the United States.
Park now faces the last year of her administration with tenuously improved relations with Japan, a rapidly escalating North Korea threat, a China reluctant to pressure Pyongyang, and South Korean trepidation over America’s presidential election that has exacerbated concerns over US capabilities and its resolve to defend South Korea. Earlier, Park had emphasized that her trustpolitik policy “is not a conciliation policy. It is based on strong deterrence.” Therefore, South Korea must first establish robust military capacities necessary to deter further North Korean attacks. This new consensus was triggered by cumulative anger and frustration from repeated North Korean violations, the realization that diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang was no longer a viable solution, heightened concern over North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile threat, and a greater willingness to press China for more extensive sanctions, Klingner argues with detailed evidence.
Beijing’s initial business and banking actions to pressure North Korea were both meaningful and welcome. Yet, China took similar actions after each previous North Korean nuclear test, only to reduce its enforcement and resume normal trade with North Korea within months. China has been an enabler of North Korean misbehavior. In the UN, China has acted as North Korea’s defense lawyer. This has been a leading driver of the realignment in 2016, which Park will continue as long as China sticks with its course.
Park’s extensive efforts to gain alignment with China on policy toward North Korea were ultimately unsuccessful. In response to North Korea’s January 2016 nuclear test, Chinese unwillingness to constrain its ally, and Xi’s refusal to take a phone call from Park for a month, Park abandoned her signature policy of trustpolitik toward North Korea. Having changed course, she will not stray from the realignment during her remaining tenure. But South Korean policy after the December 2017 presidential election is uncertain. A progressive president would adopt a softer approach toward North Korea, but would be constrained from resuming Roh Moo-hyun’s unconditional approach as the populace is far more critical of North Korea after its 2010 attacks and the 2016 binge of nuclear and missile tests. Thus, Klingner foresees the realignment as staying on course.
Article 2: South Korea’s Realignment in 2016: Opportunities, Changes, and Challenges
Shin Beomchul presents a wide-ranging assessment of the changes and challenges in the ongoing realignment. Recognizing that the only way to change the North Korean regime’s calculus is to make it choose between nuclear weapons and regime survival, the South Korean government is applying full-court pressure against the North together with the international community. The Park Geun-hye administration has set the following as its diplomatic goals: the normalization of inter-Korean relations, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and promotion of peaceful cooperation at the Northeast Asian and global level through “trustpolitik,” argues Shin. This suggests that the realignment may morph into the 2015 foreign policy approach, where diverse objectives are within reach.
The most distinct approach of the Park administration’s foreign policy is increasing strategic cooperation with China, which wields the biggest leverage on North Korea, because solving the North Korean nuclear issue was the top priority. However, after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, China faced a moment of truth. It has refused to change and continues to provide support to North Korea, fearing instability in the Kim Jong-un regime and the consequences of that. The principal stance of China in 2016 is that North Korea is a strategic asset to the country. Thus, Seoul’s realignment appears to be enduring. Shin adds that working with Russia on North Korean issues has been just as difficult as working with China. Unlike China or Russia, Japan clearly supports South Korea’s pressure diplomacy and the denuclearization of the North. After an agreement on the “comfort women” issue, the two governments have been able to work more closely than ever in addressing the North Korean nuclear conundrum, and there is growing consensus that South Korea and Japan need to strengthen security cooperation to respond to heightened threats from North Korea. This is testimony to the realignment’s durability.
The South Korean government has repeatedly been asking China for its cooperation in addressing North Korean issues and for tougher sanctions even though there is no change in China’s stance. This has to be the policy direction towards China as there is no other alternative, Shin adds. If China keeps refusing to cooperate in denuclearizing the North and if North Korea advances its nuclear capability to an irreversible level, the South Korean government will probably end up having no expectations for China. This will inevitably lead to strengthening the ROK-US alliance and ROK-US-Japan trilateral security cooperation. So far, strengthening trilateral security cooperation has been considered second best in South Korea as it brings back the Cold War rivalry of South Korea, the United States, and Japan versus North Korea, China, and Russia. However, after seeing how China reacted when it faced a moment of truth in the wake of North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, this is bound to change. if China maintains its two-Korea policy and continues to provide protection to the Kim Jong-un regime in order to utilize North Korea as a strategic asset, then Seoul will have to make preparations accordingly. US efforts at the UN and in the international community after North Korea’s fourth test made South Korea appreciate the necessity of the alliance even more, Shin says. South Korea and the United States need to agree on a comprehensive range of issues related to denuclearization and prepare a bigger carrot and a bigger stick to make North Korea take the denuclearization process seriously, and the alliance needs to establish a joint position on what approaches should be taken towards China and coordinate policy directions. Only then will we have a robust framework for the denuclearization of the peninsula. In Shin’s conclusion we find that gradual realignment is taking place in accordance with the changing strategic environment, but he holds out hope that the 2015 path will be revived.
Article 3: Synopsis of the Seoul Forum for International Affairs
The mood was pessimistic in late September. Optimism had faded rapidly that common interests, such as saving the global financial system and climate change, would be able to keep in check divided, even contradictory, views of the regional order. Despite the fact that China and the United States have been the two biggest winners in globalization and regional peace and prosperity, problem solving seemed increasingly problematic on North Korea and the South China Sea as well as other matters linked to the architecture of Asia. Utter lack of confidence in prospects for Sino-US relations fueled pessimism. So too did alarm that China has chosen North Korea over South Korea, following 25 years of hoping that Seoul would over time win this competition—if China succeeded economically and had a stake in the global order, if North Korea refused to reform and moderate its policies, and if South Korea sincerely made its case to China as a friendly and forward-looking partner.
Some in Seoul tied themselves in knots to find a scenario of empowerment of Seoul amid growing polarization. First, they argued that the US role as global superpower will endure, but an overextended power will rely more on offshore balancing. Second, they accept that competition for regional hegemony deepens as China consolidates ties with Russia and bolsters North Korea, preferring that to its collapse, but they add that Seoul can achieve yonmi huajong (ally with the United States and harmonize with China) if it continues to view China as an indispensable strategic partner, including resolving the THAAD dispute and further pursuing CJK as vital to regional cooperation. Somehow, Seoul in dialogue with Beijing after a new US administration engages Beijing too can expect to find common interests, while agreeing to boost ROK-Japan ties (US trilateralism). In this thinking, China’s intentions are limited, avoiding intense competition. Yet, the overall pessimism at this time leaves such wishful thinking in the minority in the ongoing discussions.
Correct recognition of the emerging center of gravity was sought in the forum’s exchanges. An Asia-Pacific G2 is worrisome because Sino-US overall interests may marginalize South Korean interests, but so too is a Cold War Asia-Pacific along the lines of the Cold War Euro-Atlantic in the second half of the twentieth century. A Sinocentric or Eurasian order is likewise unwelcome because it would leave North and South Korea on opposite sides of the continental-maritime divide. Even an Indo-Pacific identity for the regional order poses serious problems because it refocuses attention for Northeast Asia and dealing with North Korea as the single priority to a much wider region, dragging South Korea into geopolitics it has tried to avoid. Seoul has seen itself as a bridge, whereas in the realignment it loses any sign of centrality.
Article 4: South Korean Domestic Support for the US Alliance
Both in Seoul and Washington, the nature of the ROK-US alliance has become a hot topic. Not only the issues of THAAD and the South China Sea, but, more generally, deteriorating relations between the United States and China have made people in both countries concerned about the impact on ROK-US ties. Tighter ROK-US ties in 2016 have appeared to be a continuation, not a realignment, but there is reason to argue that they are a critical part of the ongoing transformation. Yet, in a perverse way, drawing closer actually makes bilateral relations more vulnerable, even to a new anti-American spike. The background of recurrent anti-Americanism helps to shed light on this danger.
Recent developments in Northeast Asia have led observers of this region to begin to rethink the nature of the ROK-US alliance. Woo Jung-Yeop acknowledges that internal attitudes in South Korea have had a volatile impact. The mass protests against the import of US beef in early 2008 showed that ROK-US alliance support has fluctuated in the recent past, and there is reason to think that stability of support for the alliance could be put to a test at any time even when relations between the two governments are at a high.
Conventional wisdom holds that ideological anti-US sentiment and certain demographic factors relevant to support for the alliance are related. Those not ideologically skewed but participating in the protests seemed to react to specific cases under the impact of their emotions and sympathies. The electromagnetic pulse issue of THAAD was brought up recently to mobilize people to oppose the deployment. It was mainly because the strategic element and the capability of THAAD were not easy to understand that those casually following the matter were susceptible to this argument. Woo concludes that defining the alliance beyond defense against North Korea might not become a major factor in the near future, but it has potential in the long term as a source of conflict in bilateral relations.
Koreans started to feel the pressure of choosing between the United States and China much more heavily as China expressed its strong opposition to THAAD deployment in Korea. As the THAAD system is scheduled to be deployed in the first half of next year, this could be fertile soil for the revival of anti-Americanism, but the realignment in 2016 appears to boost the ROK-US alliance significantly and reduce the prospects for a new spike in anti-Americanism. Woo recognizes this, but he warns of roadblocks ahead.
Both the recurrent revival of anti-American protests and sentiments (at times when little expected or traced to a cause not expected to have such an impact) and the difficult situation facing South Korea at this time should alert observers to the potential that anti-Americanism will surge again before long. In this sense the realignment must be seen as incomplete and even fragile, subject to reversal by electoral results and to contestation in the midst of aroused public dissatisfaction. Anti-Americanism could spike again from a sense of hopelessness, resentment against US pressure coming from an assertive reading of Pivot 2.0, anger at perceived abandonment by a US administration quick to shift priorities, or emboldened policy by a new president in Seoul who believes in middle power empowerment despite intensified regional polarization. Woo sees many pitfalls.
Article 5: Trilateralism and Realignment: Reassessing Three Triangles with South Korea
Three triangles challenge South Korean foreign policy calculations. A tendency to stay aloof of Japan while sticking close to the United States was not easy to preserve due to US pressure and the urgency of a stronger coalition and stronger deterrence against the growing threat from North Korea. Optimism about the Sino-ROK-Japanese trilateralism stumbled against new Chinese calculations to expand marginalization of Japan to similar treatment of South Korea. Likewise, hopes for a Russia-centered triangle with a limited role for Japan were turned on their head when Japan became Russia’s favored suitor, as Russia lost interest in South Korea due to its conditionality for economic cooperation inclusive of North Korea. All three triangles were transformed substantially in 2016, I argue, as I review the dynamics that have rapidly been reshaping the regional setting.
We should avoid the temptation of focusing only on Seoul’s bilateral relations. Lately, triangles have gained in prominence. The US-Japan-ROK triangle was a major concern in Washington from 2013, while Tokyo and Seoul competed in trying to win favor there. The CJK triangle was heralded as transformative early in the 2010s, overcoming one or another bilateral impasse and showing how economic ties could drive broad cooperation. Finally, the Russia-Japan-ROK triangle is only now drawing attention for its potential but also with awareness its dynamics are in flux, as Tokyo supplants Seoul as Russia’s suitor.
This chapter on the three cases of trilateralism highlights dramatic developments in 2016, which would not be well grasped without thinking about the triangular context. The alliance triangle is invigorated but still fragile, the core regional triangle is more troubled, and the northern triangle is being tested in an unprecedented manner. Should 2017 bring an intensification of the overall realignment, there is reason to expect the US-centered trilateralism to strengthen, while China-centered and Russia-centered trilateralism prove hard to sustain. Seoul’s acceptance of these changes will not be easy, given recent hopes.
The five articles specify how extensive the realignment is, argue whether we can expect a reversal in the short run (2017) or the long run, and identify how consequential this shift is likely to be for South Korean foreign policy and national identity. If the realignment is not sustained, what will be the reason? The various analyses differ on their explanations.
On how extensive is the realignment, the responses vary from far-reaching to partial and not necessarily a full-fledged realignment. On whether to expect a reversal, there is a split from probably irreversible at one end to quite possibly ephemeral on the other. The short-term case if Hillary Clinton and Park face each other in 2017 as Xi prepares for a party congress while Putin and Abe pursue their own agendas, leans toward intensification of the realignment. The long-term outlook is more varied, but some contributors foresee a hugely consequential turning point in 2016 revealing itself more unambiguously in 2017 and, even more, afterwards. The prospect for a reversal—partial or complete—rests on: 1) a regime change and sharp policy shift in North Korea favorable to diplomacy; 2) a reversion of China to its policy of 2015 or further to prioritize denuclearization and relations with South Korea; 3) an exacerbation of animosity between Japan and South Korea, which could be provoked by Abe’s revisionist obsession; or 4) a revival of anti-Americanism among the South Korean public, perhaps over a minor incident.
Even if some uncertainties arise due to one or more of the above causes, the overall trend favors a deepening of realignment. Difficulties in coordinating US and South Korean policies may arouse more anti-Americanism and Abe’s constitutional moves may exacerbate anti-Japanese sentiments, but there are greater restraints in today’s environment. Pyongyang may feign interest in diplomacy, and Beijing and Moscow may offer their good offices, but the chances are not great that Seoul would decide that its interests are well served. The forces of regional polarization are intensifying, and Seoul lacks the diplomatic leverage to overcome them despite lingering hopes.
Illusions had been nurtured in the first three years of Park’s tenure that South Korea could reach above its weight, bridging the deepening Sino-US divide and starting on the path of a bonanza from reunification. Unrealistic expectations, unsustainable and misleading to the South Korean public, were predictably dashed in 2016 given the strategic choices of the great powers. From the point of view of those who were convinced, China’s betrayal, above all, was at fault. For others, however, China acted in a manner consistent with its behavior in other arenas, whether in the South China or the East China Sea. Giving the Park administration the benefit of the doubt, however, its policies in 2014-2015 should be seen as maximizing the chances for Plan A to find success, while preparing for Plan B, above, all, by keeping coordination with Obama as close as possible on what mattered most—North Korea. Agreeing to meet with Abe in a trilateral setting and declining to go to Moscow in February 2014 and May 2015 despite Putin’s invitations, Park found ways to reassure Washington, as she explored ties with Xi Jinping while keeping Obama well informed of her intentions.
While progressives in power may break with Park’s approach, conservatives likely will agree that there is no going back from the 2016 realignment unless a drastic change occurs in North Korea’s calculus. Choosing nuclear weapons and threats in place of a path that could lead to reunification, the North sets the tone, which China and Russia reinforce with little prospect of backtracking. This, in turn, makes South Korea more dependent on the United States and more in need of triangularity with Japan. As long as US policy stays firm in opposing China and Russia’s aggression, it is hard to imagine a shift toward North Korea and abandonment of South Korea. There is strong reason to expect that the realignment seen in 2016 will be here to stay.