Northeast Asia’s geopolitical tensions have intensified and grown more complicated over the past two months. The Cold War-era legacy of contention between South Korea, the United States, and Japan on one side and China and North Korea on the other has become blurred. President Xi Jinping became the first Chinese leader to visit Seoul before Pyongyang, and Japan lifted certain unilateral economic sanctions against North Korea in exchange for the establishment of a special committee for the purpose of the Japanese Abductees Investigation. The two symbolic events took place on the same day. As Japanese revisionism continued, Beijing proposed to collaborate on history issues with Seoul, while the United States proposed to locate its missile defense system in South Korea. Discussion about South Korea’s diplomatic strategy has grown livelier, especially after the Park-Xi meeting.
The Park-Xi Meeting
A slight change was found in the assessment of Seoul’s strategic position. As discussed in the previous reports, concerns prevailed on the current situation, in which South Korea’s strategic choices are limited by competition between the two powers, Beijing and Washington. However, this time the focus was on South Korea’s newfound strategic upper hand rather than on severe limitations, as the only country that has a sound relationship with both countries. Such positive self-recognition was revealed in frequent references to “balanced diplomacy” or “pragmatic diplomacy” instead of “sandwiched South Korea.”
A Dong-A Ilbo observer introduced Chinese articles expecting South Korea to play a role as a balancer in the region, applying the concept of “buffer zone.” Pointing out that the term used to describe only North Korea in China, the article argues that the bilateral relationship is increasingly interdependent rather than conflicting. Also, it was added that China is trying to attract South Korea in the context of its overall “diplomacy toward the Korean Peninsula (대한반도외교),” which does not necessarily separate Seoul from Pyongyang.
In an interview with JoongAng Ilbo, Yoon Dukmin also argues that South Korea’s strategic value is increasing, as North Korean nuclear development deprives it of diplomatic options from China. Kim Huengkyu finds it meaningful that China requested elevating the bilateral relationship to a higher level, given that the only precedent was to the United States. A JoongAng Ilbo observer highly appreciates that the two countries agreed to start negotiations next year on maritime limits and boundaries in that Seoul can have the upper hand as the first country to hold such negotiations with China. Currently, China does not have negotiations on the issue with any of the six countries with which it shares maritime borders. With several disputes going on in the South China Sea, not only are negotiations burdensome to Beijing, but also illegal fishing takes a toll on China’s negotiating power.
Cho Hongsik also sees that South Korea can take advantage of the rivalry between Beijing and Washington rather than losing its strategic options. It can play a more constructive role in the international community, where physical power is not the sole determinant of order. Though it remains the most critical factor, the author argues that public opinion (여론의 향배) and public legitimacy/acceptance (대중적 정통성) increasingly matter. The author opines that the bilateral competition is not necessarily a zero-sum game and the harmonized relationship should be the cornerstone of East Asia’s cooperative future. Seoul can serve as a bridge between the two countries, making it easier for them to accept each other in the regional order. Cho backs up this argument, underlining that Seoul is the closest point for China to overcome Pacific containment and for the United States to have military bases next to China.
Concerning the summit outcome, two issues were mainly discussed—North Korea and Japan. As for the former, it was generally agreed that the summit sent a strong warning to Pyongyang by saying the two countries “firmly oppose” the nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, while they had called it a “serious threat” in the summit of 2013. Xi also stated indirect, but official, support for the Dresden Declaration by Park. However, the summit reportedly failed to produce any fundamental change. China sticks to the expression, “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” instead of denuclearization of North Korea. This leaves uncertainty, as one Chosun Ilbo columnist explained, about whether Xi’s emphasis on “the bilateral partnership at both the regional level and in world affairs” is only flowery words. Arguing that such a relationship would follow only when the North Korean nuclear issue is resolved, the author concludes that the two countries should start a deeper discussion on the matter to overcome the limitations the current approach has already revealed.
A Hangyoreh article blames Park’s administration for only waiting for North Korea to change without making efforts to overcome the limitation of current policies. The author reiterates that South Korea should be the one to hammer out a creative approach to resolve the issue, then China should play a significant role in making such an approach work based on its close ties with the North. If five of the six states in the Six-Party Talks cooperated, the author says, the odds would increase that Pyongyang would abandon its nuclear weapons. Similarly conciliatory in its tone, a Kyunghyang Shinmun article argues that South Korea needs to make it clear that collapse of the North Korean regime is not the goal of reunification. Reminding readers that China is a stakeholder in reunification, the author concludes, the South Korean government needs to confirm that the reunification would not result in an adverse impact on China, which would lead it to more pragmatic cooperation on the issue.
Increasing demands from China for cooperation on historical issues have been a sensitive issue for South Korea. However, the joint statement did not include any comment about Japanese revisionism. A Hangyoreh columnist disapproved of that outcome, arguing that such restraint as well as security cooperation with Japan only elevates uncertainty in the region unless the historical tensions are resolved. Yet, this point of view was rare. Mostly, the decision was approved as the outcome of elaborate diplomacy, which widens the range of diplomatic options. A Kyunghyang Shinmun article argues that Japan is a partner for further cooperation despite current conflicts. The author stresses that South Korea or the South Korea-China relationship should not be the axis of a regional conflict.
As unofficial dialogue on Japan between Park and Xi was disclosed later, however, a Dong-A Ilbo observer opines that Xi was dissatisfied with the joint statement without any comment on Japan’s revisionism. Xi used his public lecture at Seoul National University, which would be covered heavily in the media, to discuss the historical issue and to urge mutual assistance on this front. For the sake of domestic support, the author added, the Park administration disclosed the record. Kim Huengkyu also disapproves of it, arguing that it not only stimulates Japan but also gives it grounds for its fabricated assertion that South Korea is leaning to China while raising US concern over a possible split with Seoul.
Another Hangyoreh article analyzes Chinese efforts to realize mutual assistance on the history issue against the US “values alliance,” based on the shared values of freedom, human rights, and democracy. China is basically excluded from it. Quoting Xi as saying that South Korea and the Chinese went to the war with Japan “with hostility,” the author argues that such a comment is an attempt to expand the concept of “the war to resist US aggression and aid North Korea” to Japan to create an emotional tie with South Korea, as it did with the North.
In response to the Japanese report on verification of the Kono statement, it was argued that the statement has been revised despite the Abe administration’s official statement that it would retain the statement as is. Criticizing Japan’s unilateral disclosure of the bilateral diplomatic records, which were edited to put Japan in a favorable light, the South Korean government announced a plan to publish a white paper to reveal the truth and prove Japanese responsibility. Also, it rebutted the report’s finding that the statement was the result of an agreement between the two countries, insisting instead that it was Japan’s unilateral, independent outcome. Nam Sangkyu argues that the report actually denies the role of coercion by saying that no documents were found to prove it. Nam added that this seems to be part of a process, in effect, to nullify the Kono statement and weaken the Murayama statement in the near future too.
Lee Sukjong argues that Japan is trying to say that the statement is a diplomatic outcome, i.e, a concession not based on facts. Pointing out that Japan is blaming the South Korean government for the failure of the Asian Women’s Fund, Lee argues that it failed because the victims opposed compensation at a private level, asking instead for official recognition of responsibility and compensation at the national level. In response to such requests, the Kim Yongsam administration asked the Japanese government to acknowledge Japan’s moral responsibility and to educate the next generation about the true history. Lee adds that if the testimony of 16 victims was not enough to prove coercion, there seems to be no rational way to persuade the Japanese government. Lee reiterates that Abe sacrifices Japan’s relationship with Seoul to earn the support of the right wing, by ruining the Kono statement, the only official document acknowledging the wartime sexual assaults and apologizing for them. Lee concludes with emphasis on the need to have international support in such cases of human rights violations and to deter such revisionism through international cooperation.
Cho Seyoung, a former diplomat, refutes the report as not based on truth and a fabrication of the record. Cho suggests a legal approach to resolve the issue. Arguing that emotional conflicts are too big to overcome through “negotiations,” Cho argues that legal approaches rather prevent further emotional damage and get rid of unnecessary misunderstanding at the international level by producing a legally binding agreement or soliciting mediation.
About a week after the report’s release, Japan declared its right of collective self-defense and accelerated its negotiations with North Korea. A Hangyoreh article analyzes such moves as an attempt to break the status quo. The fact that Abe and Kim Jung-un officially launched their cooperation, unlike the way the Koizumi administration handled the summit in 2001, the author argues, shows the great intensity of their quest. The author argues that Japan’s attempts are based on fear of abandonment by the United States. An example of such abandonment was “the Nixon shock,” a blow to Japan of a breakthrough in US relations with China without prior notice to Japan. In other words, once China overtakes the United States in Asia, Washington is likely to abandon Tokyo, again causing a shock. The right to collective self-defense is to prepare for the worst-case scenario and the negotiations with the North are to prove Japan’s diplomatic and physical power to China.
The Northeast Asia Regional Order
The discussion in the press turned to how South Korea can maximize its strategic value and what it should be wary of in the future. Lee Jong Suk, the former Reunification Minister, insists on being more “practical.” Approving of the North Korea-Japan negotiations, Lee argues that they can lead to the opening of Pyongyang and deter its nuclear development. Acknowledging the criticism that Japan is opening a crack in the current international cooperation against North Korea, Lee reiterates that the current approach has proven to be a failure. Expecting negotiations to have a positive impact on the regional order, regardless of Tokyo’s intention, he asserts that Seoul does not need to see them as a threat only. Criticizing the lack of a detailed approach in the Park administration’s reunification policies, Lee argues that South Korea should invest its time and effort in finding a method to denuclearize Pyongyang. As long as the South and North contend with each other, Lee argues that only China takes advantage of different diplomatic options. As for Japan, Lee argues that currently Seoul and Tokyo are in conflict over politics and diplomacy, but they are supposed to cooperate on security. Arguing that such an arrangement is not sustainable and contributes to proliferation, Lee calls for multilateral security cooperation. He concludes that exclusive bilateral cooperation or South Korea-US-Japan trilateral cooperation only enables Japan to expand its military to raise tensions in the region. Lee concludes that when Japan’s military power is in a multilateral framework, the vicious cycle based on fear that history will repeat itself can be resolved.
The most frequently used term over the last two months to describe the regional order is both a horizontal and vertical alliance (합종연횡). A JoongAng Ilbo observer argued that China would request more than it did at the summit meeting, which proved easier for South Korea to address, as sensitive issues like missile defense, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, and a plan for Asia Security Cooperation were not on the table. The author expects that such demands will arise at the upcoming APEC meeting in November. Preparation for such demands and for unexpected change in the regional order was stressed.
Kim Heugkyu opined that the summit meeting will be recorded as the start of a power transition in the region. China’s capabilities are increasing much faster than expected as it centralizes its power and indicates willingness to lead the Eurasian continent through concepts such as “New Asian Security,” an Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, and a “New Silk Road Initiative.” Reiterating that the United States and China are going through a chaotic era to build a new order in which they can coexist, Kim urges South Korea to maximize its strategic value as a necessary country with which both countries coexist.