Option 3: Reclaiming Diplomatic Ownership


During the more than five centuries of the Yi dynasty (1392-1910), Korea practiced one-dimensional diplomacy; it had only to take care of its tributary relationship with China. Within this arrangement, Korea enjoyed de facto independence except for ownership of its diplomacy, which Korea had to relinquish to China. This configuration is what some scholars refer to as “benign neglect.” Then, Korea completely lost her sovereignty, which meant no diplomatic power at all, under the colonial rule of Japan (1910-1945). Having barely survived the devastating Korean War (1950-1953), Korea’s diplomacy next heavily relied on the overwhelming US power and influence until the end of the twentieth century. A one-dimensional diplomacy, very similar to the one the Yi Dynasty had vis-à-vis China, was at play. This time it was with the United States within the Cold War framework. In sum, for the past 600 years, Korea has constantly lived with what can best be termed “unidimensional” diplomacy. It had scant experience in “multidimensional” diplomacy in the realm of its core security and economic interests until the end of the Cold War and the rise of China changed things.

Entering the twenty-first century, Korea’s diplomatic environment was fundamentally transformed. For the first time in its history, if we exclude the complex decades at the end of the nineteenth century, Korea has had to deal with an environment that had become multipolar in nature. One can count four poles for Korea’s diplomacy: the continuing supremacy of America, the rise of China, the increasingly isolated and independent North Korea, and the revisionist Japan. In this analysis, we omit Russia, although some would include it too. Each of the four constitutes, as far as Korea’s core national interests are concerned, an independent pole in its own right.

Korea’s survival and rise in terms of economic development and democracy attest to the dexterity with which it addressed the challenges of unipolar diplomacy. Drawing on lessons from this experience, Korea’s current foreign policy is quite solid in its fundamentals in dealing with each of the four independent poles. Korea maintains an excellent alliance system with the United States, and many say the relationship “cannot be better.” Korea has been successful in promoting a cooperative relationship with rising China to the point some in Korea even characterize it as “leaning toward China.” South Korea’s relationship with North Korea is virtually frozen, but it is principally because of Pyongyang’s deep fear and suspicion regarding all sorts of inter-Korean cooperation. Korea’s relationship with Japan does show signs of a rift, but it is primarily because Japan under Prime Minister Abe is taking a revisionist approach regarding history. Thus, Korean strategic thinkers find little fault on their side in the troubles Seoul has with Pyongyang and Tokyo and are generally content with the progress they have achieved in dealing with Washington and Beijing. Yet, despite what are viewed as solid fundamentals, foreign policy appears to be static or passive. It is at a crossroads. Korea now should reclaim ownership of its diplomacy.

American “Rebalancing to Asia” and Chinese “New Type of Major Power Relations”

Essentially, Korea’s reclamation of its diplomatic autonomy has been rendered possible because neither the United States nor China harbors any territorial ambitions regarding the Korean Peninsula. Before WWII, the ambition to have diplomatic autonomy was unrealistic due to some nations having aggressive imperial designs on this region. The Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars attest to this, but the game now played by the United States and China regarding the Korean Peninsula is fundamentally defensive; both do not want to see it fall under the complete control of the other party. That was the overriding dynamics of the Korean War of 1950-1953. This Sino-American configuration opens an opportunity for Korea to reclaim its diplomacy, playing a balancing act, which is important to be portrayed as between the US alliance and Chinese cooperation, not between the United States and China per se.

The success or failure of Korea’s balancing act between the ROK-US alliance and ROK-China cooperation depends on whether there is trans-Pacific compatibility—a question that can be examined within the context of the American rebalancing toward Asia and the rise of China. Are they compatible? We have experienced a case of trans-Pacific incompatibility with the rise of imperial Japan and the US involvement in East Asia. Since WWII, East Asia has grown into one of three geo-economic centers along with North America and Europe. Immediately after WWII, East Asia was producing about one-tenth of the global economy. It accounts now for around one-quarter of world GDP—on a par with North America and Europe. Demographics add to East Asia’s attractiveness. While North America and Europe each has a population of about 400 million, East Asia has a population of about 1.6 billion people. Moreover, the cultural emphasis on education, hard work, thrift, and deferred gratification is more prominent in East Asia than in the West. Based on this, it has been noted that the center of gravity will increasingly shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific, concomitant with a paradigm shift from raid to trade in international relations. Countries now compete by means of trade, financial, and cultural clout rather than by military force. Military capability will remain indispensable, but not as a principal means of promoting the national interest but of protecting a nation’s economic power. In the post-WWII world, the raid paradigm no longer holds true. For the first time, conquest and territorial occupation do not lead to profit, instead becoming a burden to the victor. This is extremely important for Korea to understand as it deals with the question of reunification and the intentions of other powers, especially China.

There appear to be two schools of thought regarding Sino-American relations in the new Pacific era. People in School A posit that the rise of China will continue at a rapid pace and sooner or later it will be in a position to challenge the supremacy of the United States in the Pacific. Thus, they assume that military confrontation between the two cannot be avoided. Following this logic, they interpret the focus of US foreign policy to be the containment or encirclement of China, as seen in: US emphasis on the importance of US-Japan relations, expansion of its military presence in Australia, special favors given by the United States to India, including an unprecedented nuclear agreement, and the active promotion of the TPP trade agreement open virtually to all countries in East Asia except China. People belonging to school B, however, posit that the emerging Pacific era of the twenty-first century will be quite different from the Atlantic era of the past five centuries, which evolved around the paradigm of raid in the name of colonial imperialism. The essential character of nations seeking self-preservation or national interest has not changed, only its modality has changed: instead of military force, economic clout will be used to realize national interests. They do not believe in the inevitability of a Sino-US showdown in the manner of established and rising powers for millennia for the sake of supremacy over the other. They believe that a “new type of major power relations” proclaimed by China is genuine, and this stance goes very well with the American “rebalancing toward Asia” policy, as both are based on the premise of a new trade paradigm, repudiating the habit of the Atlantic era of using military confrontation as the principal means of promoting the national interest.

History, I argue, will vindicate School B. America and China each rely on soft power as opposed to military power as the principal means of securing its national interest. China’s millennia old tributary system was precisely based on the balance of soft power vis-à-vis neighboring nations, and America is built on the moral principle that repudiates the European realpolitik of balance of hard power that dominated international relations from the time of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Korea, a nation with a history of relations with China much longer and more intense than any other nation in the world, must not let its evaluation of rising China be shrouded with confusion or worse with the notion of trans-Pacific incompatibility. Without due regard to Chinese civilization, one is apt to make the mistake of interpreting China’s moves in terms of the paradigm of the Atlantic Era—a paradigm of war and conquest.

International relations in East Asia have been regulated according to a different paradigm, based on preservation of the status quo instead of expansion, deference to hierarchy instead of exploitation, and ethics rather than law and force. It values the prevention of conflict as opposed to victory in conflict, management of the situation as opposed to resolution of problems, focus on “the day after” as opposed to “the D-day,” and management by default as opposed to resolution by design. China proper, excluding dynasties under the Mongols and Manchus, has never ventured out of its frontiers over the last one thousand years with a view to expansion of its territory or economic gains. It would take generations, if not centuries, for such a country to convert its fundamental characteristics of foreign policy into hegemonism. Korea must act from the conviction, despite opinions expressed by those in School A, that China will not become hegemonic for the foreseeable future. The competition for supremacy between the United States and China is inevitable, but the game will be played like wei chi, which is predicated on a fait accompli without confrontation, rather than the Western game of chess, predicated on a direct collision for victory.

Korea between the United States and China: TPP-AIIB and THAAD

A middle power such as Korea does not enjoy any margin of error. It should be extremely wary of any unrealistic, audacious, intrusive, or interventionist diplomacy. Aware that there are certain foreign policy areas in which it must act to secure its core national interests, Korea must take a proactive stance in these areas, which will allow it to avoid domestic confusion and garner the respect of the parties involved. If Korea does not take a proactive stance, then the other powers will take initiatives with a view to securing their respective core interests, sidelining Korea. In this regard, balancing the ROK-US alliance and ROK-China cooperation is the most important issue confronting Korea. The rise of China, which resulted in a “G2 configuration,” transformed East Asia from a unipolar to a multipolar world. Since normalization, trade between South Korea and China has increased dramatically to USD 270 billion. China has become by far the first trading partner for South Korea. Second is Japan and the United States is third, each with a volume of around USD 100 billion. Direct flights between South Korea and China have increased over 840 per week. This has led to an unprecedented situation: security depends on one state and the economy depends on another.

Within this bipolar configuration, Washington and Beijing have at times come to demonstrate different approaches in regard to South Korea’s economic and security concerns, which does not allow Seoul to resort to its traditional unidimensional diplomacy. The contrasting approaches to TPP-AIIB and THAAD on the part of Washington and Beijing are cases in point. When the two great powers have different economic requests (TPP and AIIB) or different security requests (THAAD and no THAAD), only Korea can formulate a policy line taking into account both requests along with its core national interests, taking a proactive stance between the ROK-US alliance and Korea-China cooperation instead of remaining passive.

When TPP was proposed by the Obama administration, Korea did not take a position and is yet to announce a clear public stance in consideration of China’s perception (at least for a few years) of this being a form of containment on the part of America. In a similar vein, when China proposed the AIIB, Korea did not take a position until it became a fait accompli in consideration of America’s position that considers the proposal a move for China to expand its influence in Asia at the expense of America. Korea’s hedging towards the TPP and AIIB did not earn it respect, either domestically or internationally. It looked paralyzed because it refused to own its diplomacy when there was an obvious course of action, which might have calmed domestic fidgeting and earned respect from both Washington and Beijing. Early on, Seoul should have taken a public position along the lines of “Korea will join both TPP and AIIB, but the timing and modality shall be reviewed.” Situated at the heart of Northeast Asia, the Korean Peninsula traditionally served as an invasion route or theater of confrontation between continental and maritime powers (with Japan defying the Eastern tradition at times). Yet, that was under the paradigm of raid. Now under the paradigm of trade, the peninsula has become a bridge for international commerce and communication. As such, Korea cannot afford not to join both TPP and AIIB. At the same time, Korea remains a middle power situated between two global superpowers, which would not allow it to take any imprudent or audacious diplomacy. This consideration should guide Korea to qualify its principled stance of joining both institutions with the caveat that “the timing and modality shall be reviewed.”

The same logic applies to the question of the deployment of THAAD on the Korean Peninsula. Korea has yet to formulate a coherent position on this security issue, but finding a reasonable compromise between the two positions is necessary. If this is not done, Korea will give the impression to its people that it is under constant pressure from the two sides, which will, in the end, risk harming both bilateral relationships. Korea’s disowning of the issue would also make both Washington and Beijing conclude that Korea does not have the capacity to take their interest into account as it is only responsive to pressure. South Korea’s paramount interest is to deter North Korea, which is bent on increasing its missile and nuclear capability. Such a national interest dictates that the former declare, “the THAAD deployment is a matter to be decided between the ROK and the United States.” At the same time, it would be prudent to take into account the Chinese concern that this defense system once deployed could serve a dual purpose given its proximity to China. Thus, it would be legitimate to examine technical aspects of the system, taking a public position along the lines that “the deployment of THAAD is a matter to be decided between the ROK and the United States, but Chinese concerns will be reviewed from a technical point of view.”

In a similar vein, Seoul can own its policy with regard to human right issues in North Korea. It is well known that the United States and other Western nations are in favor of pushing this agenda, whereas China does not favor such an approach and North Korea vehemently reacts to it. The record shows that South Korea has tried all sorts of options when North Korean human rights resolutions were tabled for a vote in the international arena, including abstentions, no votes, and votes in favor. It has lost its dignity and self-respect. A responsible and sustainable position would be along the lines of “South Korea does not take initiative in the making of human rights resolutions on North Korea, but when such resolutions are tabled, Seoul will vote in favor.” Such an act of owning its diplomacy would enable it to avoid embarrassment with its friends and impediments in its efforts at dialogue with Pyongyang. Seoul cannot deny the fact that North Korea remains one of the most serious violators of human rights, which explains its vote in favor, but it would be unwise to push the issue to the forefront, given overriding concerns of security and the fate of the peninsula to discuss with Pyongyang, which explains not taking initiative.

US-Japan-ROK Trilateral Cooperation and China

A proper understanding of China’s past, present, and future would enable Korea to formulate a productive foreign policy line regarding the thorny question that puts it between US-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation and China. First of all, it must free itself from the unwarranted perception that the triangle, on the one hand, and China, on the other, are based on and pursue different value systems. This perception is promoted, directly or indirectly, by Japan and some US opinion makers, arguing that democracy and a market economy are values not shared by China. Such a viewpoint could create a dilemma on whether or not to participate in trilateral cooperation on the promotion of values aimed at putting peace and stability in the region on a solid basis. Korea must be able to join this strategy without any misgivings as such a philosophy is valid and such a strategy is relevant. East Asia enjoys unprecedented peace and prosperity. North Korea is the sole exception, and the problem of North Korea will eventually be resolved when it joins the trade paradigm either by its choice or by its collapse. In a position to know China, by virtue of its unique historic experience and its current proximity, both geographic and cultural, better than any other country, Korea should not let its perceptions be swayed by the assertion that the Chinese political system is not democratic or the Chinese economy is not based on the market economic principle. China had over USD 1 trillion in trade with the United States, Japan, and Korea combined. It holds over USD 2 trillion in US Treasury bonds. China’s future depends on continuing economic development in cooperation with us.

One can have a clear picture if one compares China with the Soviet Union when it formed a G2 with the United States. Most of those who point out deficiencies in the Chinese market economic system compared with the Western one do not know that laissez-faireism, the fundamental principle of the Western market economic theory, originated from the Eastern concept of wuwei through the French Physiocrats of the eighteenth century. It was the traditional default mechanism of the East Asian political economy. Moreover, if one accepts that economic freedom is inseparable from political freedom, one must also accept that free market China must eventually become democratic. Freedom cannot be divided into two parts: economic and political. Economic freedom necessarily entails political freedom; it requires contact with foreign investors, travel to foreign countries and foreigners visiting and living in one’s own country, learning and importing foreign technology, ever increasing trade with foreign countries with all the necessary direct contacts, etc. State formation in the East preceded the West by two millennia (the emergence of the Warring States in fifth century BC in the East and the emergence of the nation states in the West during the seventeenth century with the Westphalia Treaties system) and people-first politics, the core principle of democracy, was born with it. Those who still argue that China is a communist regime ignore the “sinicization of communism,” which follows the pattern of the sinicization of Buddhism after its introduction into China during the first century. Thus, with a view to promoting the values of democracy and the market economy within the framework of US-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation, Korea should be aware that China does share those values and that it possesses more grounds to properly evaluate the nature of the Chinese regime than most other countries in the world.

The same logic should apply for trilateral cooperation in the field of security. Korea should remain active in this endeavor as the single most serious security threat in Northeast Asia emanates from North Korea, which continues to develop missile and nuclear capabilities while starving its people amid self-imposed isolation. At the same time, it would be wise to be wary of this trilateral cooperation taking a common position with China as its target, since national interests are not identical in dealing with China. Korea shares a border with China, its trade volume is much larger with China, it has a sizable ethnic Korean group inside China, and, most of all, it needs Chinese cooperation for the reunification as well as the management of the North Korean question until reunification. It would be unwise and untenable to behave in lockstep with the United States and Japan in trilateral cooperation where China is concerned. Also, it would be insensitive and unproductive for these two to request it. Given this multidimensional configuration, Korea should formulate and make public a policy line that “Korea will actively participate and promote US-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation, including in the security domain. But when this trilateral cooperation takes a stance aiming at China, Korea will not be part of such a stance.”

Regarding the ROK-Japan rift on historical issues, it would be in Korea’s interest to resist the temptation to join forces with China. At the same time, it should not entertain the hope or pursue a policy based on the assumption that its historical issues with Japan can be resolved by persuasion or negotiation with the Abe administration. This is because Abe and his team harbor deep and prejudiced convictions epitomized in the annex museum of the Yasukuni Shrine, which can be summarized as: “Japan’s intervention in uncivilized East Asia since the Meiji Restoration was made with a view to helping it towards civilization and liberating it from the grip of Western powers. Japan failed in this benevolent mission because she was defeated in the war. Japan is a victim, not an aggressor.” Seoul would be better served by waiting for post-Abe Japan to address the historical issues one way or another. However, given the positive and mutually beneficial aspects of their relationship, including trade, tourism, and cultural exchange, Seoul and Tokyo should be able to continue to show signs of maturity that they would not allow them to fall victim to bilateral rows on historical issues. The most realistic and productive policy line is having a bilateral summit meeting within the framework of multilateral settings while postponing a bilateral summit either in Korea or in Japan. In the meantime, the two countries are better served by putting on the backburner territorial and other intractable issues.

North Korea, the United States, China, and Reunification by Default

The need for Korea to reclaim diplomatic ownership is nowhere felt more acutely than with regard to North Korea and eventual reunification. As its fate has repeatedly been decided by more powerful neighbors with no regard to its own aspirations, Korea has fallen into the habit of asking great powers about their position or strategy regarding the reunification of the Korean peninsula, which is a core national interest. Its default attitude is figuring out the US and Chinese positions without formulating its own. Seoul has yet to announce its position on such essential issues as to how it intends or expects to realize reunification and how it wants to design its post-unification security system. Needed is a well thought out set of objectives, course of action, and game plan. Yet a careful examination of these pivotal issues shows that Korea has no reason to hesitate or delay to make its position clear and enter into discussions with the United States and China based on them.

In this endeavor, discernment by Korea of the knowables and unknowables as well as the doables and undoables with regard to North Korea’s future is crucial. The starting point can be to understand that the regime is in a mortal dilemma: North Korea is well aware that its current Soviet option of concentrating all available resources into militarization would lead to collapse of the regime in the end just as was the case with the Soviet Union; it also knows that its desirable Chinese option of reform and opening up could easily produce wealth for the people as was the case with Japan, South Korea, China, and Vietnam but most probably at the price of the demise of the regime. Either way, North Korea faces demise. The recently formulated “two track” strategy of continuing militarization and pursuing economic growth at the same time is not so much a realistic policy option as an expression of its dilemma.

Pyongyang, unable to try the Chinese option of survival, is most likely to muddle through its intractable dilemma until the unavoidable collapse. Thus, reunification of the Korean Peninsula can only be realized by default, in other words by the collapse of North Korea, not by design, i.e., by war, negotiation, or gradual integration. Consequently, Seoul would be better served by understanding and explaining to the people that so-called reunification by absorption does not make any sense: Seoul cannot realize it even though it wants to; Seoul cannot avoid it even though it wants to. It happens when it happens by Pyongyang’s own doing, i.e., its self-destruction, which nobody outside can control. It is also essential to understand and accept that the North Korean nuclear question is not a standalone issue and will only be resolved at the same time as the fate of the Pyongyang regime is settled. They have become inseparable like two sides of the same coin. In this context, reactivation of the Six-Party Talks mechanism that has the merit of combining these two issues is worth trying although the outcome seems quite uncertain due to Pyongyang’s inability to make the much needed strategic decision of embracing the trade paradigm by forgoing its nuclear ambitions. It will be in the interest of South Korea to announce clearly and publicly a national policy that a reunified Korea will not have nuclear weapons. It has every interest not to have them and to demonstrate to neighboring countries its peaceful intentions. Having done this, what makes things delicate and difficult are the unknowables: no one knows when and how North Korea would collapse.

This leads us to the management as opposed to the resolution of the North Korean problem, requiring three tasks: deterrence, engagement without illusion, and a contingency plan. Deterrence is secured by South Korea’s own military capability and its crucial US alliance. It should constitute the core of Seoul’s strategy because the “how” of North Korea’s collapse remains unknowable and because it is in the interest of all states that the demise happens when it happens by North Korea’s own making in a peaceful manner to the extent possible. South Korea’s engagement policy with North Korea should continue by all means because South and North Koreans remained one nation and one people for millennia. But no illusion should be allowed to overshadow the stern reality that cooperation and exchange between the two Koreas will not be forthcoming due to the mortal fear Pyongyang harbors in this regard. This leaves Seoul to pursue all sorts of dialogue and contacts, including secret ones (not forgetting that the US-Cuba normalization was the fruit of 18 months of secret negotiations) aiming at a summit meeting, all the more because there is no trust between them. However meager the chance of success may be, no efforts should be spared to persuade Pyongyang that its only way to survival is in its joining the trade paradigm by making a strategic choice in favor of the Chinese option. Only with this choice can Seoul and Pyongyang entertain the vision of a de facto reunification by peaceful and gradual integration instead of reunification by North Korea’s perilous collapse. What is happening between mainland China and Taiwan should serve as a model.

As the “when” of North Korea’s collapse is unknowable (it may not happen in decades or it may happen in the near future), the need for contingency plans becomes all the more urgent according to the wise precept of “hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.” Such a plan in foreign policy is more about strategy than logistics and economic costs. The foreign policy plan for Seoul can start with an understanding that, if the reunification by default is in the hands of Pyongyang, the modality of reunification after its collapse is entirely in the hands of Seoul. In other words, it is in the interest of Seoul to clearly establish that the much-discussed issue of reunification by absorption is in the realm of undoable as far as it is concerned, and that the modality of reunification is in the realm of doable. By owning its foreign policy of reunification, South Korea must be able to establish that its long-term national interest dictates its commitment to the German formula (maintaining the post-reunification ROK-US alliance, all the while guaranteeing to China that there would be no American troops stationed in the former North Korean territory) as opposed to the Austrian formula (China will send its troops to North Korea during the crisis of collapse and use them as a bargaining chip to ensure the neutrality, i.e. the end of the ROK-US alliance, of the reunified Korea).

The Austrian formula would put the reunified Korea back where Korea was when East Asia remained isolated until the nineteenth century, i.e., in a tributary relationship with the formidable centripetal power of China. The globalization of East Asia enables Korea to maintain an alliance with the United States with a view to safeguarding its margin of diplomatic freedom. And given the stabilizing role played by the US military presence in Northeast Asia, it may not be in China’s best interest to have a neutral Korea under its immediate geopolitical influence, which will certainly provoke Japan’s militarization with a possible nuclear option as soon as its alliance with the United States shows any sign of weakening.

Most of the foreign policy lines explained above—the product of reclaiming diplomatic ownership by Seoul—, could be made public to ensure maximum effectiveness and transparency. The only exception could be South Korea’s demarche to China regarding its reunification policy line, given North Korea’s extreme sensitivity. Nonetheless, the fundamentals of Korean options and choices should be made a subject of discreet discussions between Seoul and Beijing including at the highest level. At the same time, with a view to ensuring domestic support and consensus, track two and opinion maker mechanisms can be sensitized to the importance of engaging in such discussions and arriving at a common understanding.

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