Washington Insights: May 2014 (Part 2)


This is the second of two parts of this issue’s Washington Insights. It provides a synopsis of a panel discussion on March 29 at the annual meetings in Philadelphia of the AAS. Although Rozman and Denisov were authors of papers, they were not on the panel. For a link to the video of the panel, please click here.

Panel: South Korea’s Triangular Relations
Authors: Sue-Mi Terry, US-ROK-Japan Relations; Sung-Yoon Lee, China-ROK-Japan Relations; Gilbert Rozman, China-ROK-US Relations; Valery Denisov and Alexander Lukin, Russia-Korean Peninsula-China Relations. Moderator: Thomas Christensen; Presenter on China-ROK-US Relations: Evans Revere.

Discussion successively moved from one triangle to the next, but the juxtaposition of the four triangles involving South Korea was intended to provide an additional effect. This became evident in the course of the discussion. Below, each of the four themes is covered separately, and then the cumulative effect is considered on the basis of the remarks made.

Of all of these three-way groupings, in recent months most attention has centered on the Japan-ROK-US triangle. It was troubled last summer and fall as authors were starting to write their papers, there was quiet progress near the end of the year before the visit by Abe to the Yasukuni Shrine set back the US-led effort to break the impasse, the nadir in relations occurred in January and February, and with strong US support an understanding was reached that led to the trilateral summit of March 25, which has been followed by more improvement in the atmosphere in the run-up to Obama’s visit to Tokyo and Seoul.

The alliance triangle of US-ROK-Japan relations has obviously suffered because poor relations between Japan and South Korea have had a negative impact on the US ability to function as the pivot of this relationship and to pursue rebalancing to Asia. This was true in the last phase of Lee Myung-bak’s tenure just as rebalancing was gaining momentum, and it grew more serious under the impact of new leaders from 2013. While observers focus on the deleterious impact of the Park-Abe relationship, they have rarely noted how Obama’s pivot might have developed had this weak leg of the triangle been strengthened. After all, rebalancing implies converting alliances into multilateral blocs, of which the one that seemed most within reach is located in Northeast Asia. Although TPP has the potential to include a triangular FTA with US-Japan talks in full swing and South Korea in the preliminary phase of testing the waters, formation of a multilateral security structure is the essence of what has been discussed. At a minimum, it signifies more cooperation in peacekeeping operations and counter-terrorism, which presumably are not matters of concern to China. More problematic may be cooperation on ODA to states in Southeast Asia with an expression of shared values, sensitive at a time of confrontation over the South China Sea. Perhaps, more troublesome for China would be triangularity in the areas of counter-proliferation and cyberspace, directed at North Korea but unlikely to be limited in ways China would approve. Finally, the three areas of missile defense, anti-submarine warfare, and maritime security more broadly challenge China more directly. Even if the discussion was purposely narrowed to the alliance triangle, listeners could not avoid thinking of quadrangular implications of strengthening this still troubled triangle.

With comments about Japan-ROK relations warning against optimism that a corner has been turned, discussion put a premium on sustained US involvement, remaining fully engaged as in the run-up to the March 25 trilateral summit and taking this occasion as a fresh start. If this occasion had seen the US role towering over that of its allies to secure a narrowly focused discussion on security related to North Korea, future trilateral summits cannot be expected to alter this pattern fundamentally. The discussion mainly centered on what the United States should do to keep things on track, starting with the premise that it must do more. On the one hand, the majority opinion was that any attempt at mediation, as on the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute, is a bad idea. On the other, there was consensus that more should be done to discourage actions that undermine the security of all three states. Having pressed against inflammatory actions before Abe’s Yasukuni Shrine visit and even more afterwards in regard to the comfort women issue of particular sensitivity to Koreans, Washington should press even harder. This advice came not only with Abe in mind, but also with a reference to Lee Myung-bak’s 2012 visit to Dokdo as another instance of prioritizing national identity at a cost to common strategic interests, causing damage in the face of a clear and present danger from North Korea not only to the security interests of South Korea and Japan, but also to the US ability to defend the two.

The implications of this discussion for the alliance triangle are four-fold. First, for the United States it means an attentive focus on preventing identity issues, however they may be presented in Seoul and Tokyo, from interfering with national security, discouraging departures from this norm and incentivizing adherence to it. Reactions such as that given to Abe’s Yasukuni visit would be expected rather than an exception. Second, for Seoul, it means encouragement to showcase South Korea as a miracle, not a victim, keeping the focus on national security, as these times demand. Third, for Japan, it means reminders that as long as it is insistent on the existential threat of China, distractions that weaken the trilateral capacity to meet this challenge will not be overlooked. Finally, the issue remains of what is the unifying security understanding of the three countries. While all agreed that countering North Korea belligerence, as it is foreseen, fits this description, some thought that, increasingly, there is another priority: working together as allies to shape China’s rise. If China uses force to change the status quo in the East or South China Sea, then the triangle must not be split by South Korean hesitation to endanger China’s cooperation in dealing with North Korea. Not to meet a clear, common threat could threaten the alliance system. On the frontlines in facing China’s determination to isolate and demonize it, Japan has a special responsibility to persuade Washington and even Seoul that it has a responsible attitude toward the security needs of the group without needless distractions.

Rather than repeat what is widely known about how relations were set back under Abe and Park, the discussion centered on how relations could improve. One approach is to ask what contributed to the positive turn in relations in 1998, and are there grounds for any optimism that similar conditions may arise. If the two most important factors were the Asian financial crisis and the shared threat of North Korea, then the financial conditions in which South Korea feels dependent on Japan’s support art unlikely to be duplicated. Yet, the case was made that the sense of threat from North Korea, perhaps with China in an accessory role, could prompt a renewed sense of ROK-Japanese mutual dependency. Moreover, despite different threat perceptions regarding China, the possibility exists that there can be sufficient overlap, e.g. on maritime expansion and even the ADIZ rollout, that Seoul and Tokyo would agree on some shared responses–intelligence sharing and strengthening Japan as a base of support for contingencies on the Korean Peninsula being two examples. With Park proposing the term “jackpot” to refer to reunification, Japanese financing in support of reunification would seem important to her. On the economic side, if one focuses on supply chains based on exports to South Korea and FDI to South Korea, then the relatively level of Japan-South Korea trade should be seen as deceptive. As the US defense budget is restrained and as earthquake-prone Japan recognizes the value of relocating some production that it wants to keep close at hand, bilateral cooperation must be seen in a more positive light. These are arguments not often heard for this bilateral relationship as well as for this triangle in the context of the competing ROK triangles.

China-ROK-Japan relations were initially approached through the question: Is Seoul making a mistake by tilting sharply toward China in this core regional triangle. Recently observers have paid little heed to this framework, concentrating separately on the alliance triangle and the Sino-ROK-US triangle as if Seoul operates from two distinct paradigms in dealing with Tokyo and Beijing. When they consider CJK, they have in mind only the economic triangle with a secretariat in Seoul and negotiations limping along to establish an FTA. Our discussion turned instead to strategic implications at the core of the region.

The case for Seoul needing to choose sides without delay between Beijing and Tokyo was presented in stark terms with warnings that it is in danger of having its fate decided by others with little say in the matter, as in the 1590s and the early 1950s. It must grasp the power shift underway in the region, recognizing China’s maritime belligerence and its refusal to put serious pressure on North Korea despite that country’s threatening ways as game-changers that cannot be met with idealistic aspirations or procrastination. There is no mistaking the polarization of the region between China and the United States, and in that light, to tilt to China over Japan is to ignore South Korea’s national interests, it was argued. The fundamental strategic configuration, resembling that at the height of the Cold War, is China-Russia-North Korea vs. the United States-Japan-South Korea, and right now it is Seoul that appears most confused about that reality. Despite efforts by Seoul, sometimes reinforced by Washington’s moves, to assuage Beijing, it has received nothing of substance in return. Instead, South Koreans have succumbed to false euphoria, over and over again, as in the June 2013 Park-Xi summit, overreacting to ambiguous wording by the Chinese. By now, it should be understood that China does not have South Korean interests in mind, but is intent on transforming the peninsula in a manner that benefits North Korea, whether reunification follows or not, ends the US nuclear umbrella, and abrogates the US-ROK alliance. This argument contends that South Korea is reverting to a bad habit of misreading the strategic interests of one or more great powers. Even if Ahn is a genuine hero, asking China to memorialize where he assassinated Ito Hirobumi is to play into China’s hands to deepen the Japan-ROK split and paint Japan as a pariah that is not an acceptable partner in the strategic struggle underway, contrary to Seoul’s interest.

Discussion turned from the negative impact of Seoul’s tilt to the way forward toward a rebalance with both Japan and China. One idea was to strive to keep historical memory at a low level in relations with Tokyo to be addressed by academicians, low-level officials, and secondary settings, not at summits or in addresses by top leaders. Another idea was to avoid any semblance of colluding with China against the interests of the United States and of the US alliance system, including Japan. In essence, this was an appeal for greater realpolitik than trustpolitik. Recalling Park Geun-hye’s criticisms of Roh Moo-hyun for the rosy-eyed ideal of making South Korea into a balancer by boosting ties with China at the expense of worsening relations with the United States and for the overly emotional response to “Takeshima Day” by an obsessive and prolonged campaign against Japan, this viewpoint is buttressed by the warning that when North Korea undertakes its next provocation, likely to be soon, and China proves to be undependable, Seoul is likely to need Tokyo, awakening to the contrast of a “virtual ally” with an “unstated adversary.”

Questions posed to this stark presentation of an essentially zero-sum choice for the South Koreans centered on China’s relationship with North Korea as well as the gap between the role of this triangle in managing North Korea and in dealing with the maritime dangers in the East and South China seas. By dismissing current tension in the Sino-North Korean relationship as no more than a glitch, the argument discounts much of the analysis from the time of the Six-Party Talks and especially in the recent downturn of relations under Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un. Rather than taking a wait-and-see attitude to China’s response to the next provocations, it would draw a firm line prematurely, argued those who also may be skeptical of China’s ultimate choice. The fact that China does not want North Korea to collapse is not equivalent to plans for supporting its preeminence in the transformation of the peninsula. Improving ties with Japan at the expense of prioritizing the North Korean threat to maritime threats, as Japan would desire, also does not seem consonant with South Korean national interests. Indeed, Japan appears to be slighting the North Korean danger in its strategic thinking. The implication in these doubts is that Seoul and Tokyo should recognize some strategic divergence and strive to find some common ground, where each accepts the other’s priority while agreeing to do more to assist one another.

The shadow of the United States hangs heavily over the Sino-ROK-Japan triangle. It is the superpower ally, after all, that pursues an ambidextrous policy of endorsing and relying on China’s cooperation in dealing with North Korea, while increasingly showing its resolve to stand with Japan against China’s territorial demands backed by intimidation, if not coercion, in the East and South China seas. This has meant, on the one hand, support for “trustpolitik” and, on the other, support for containment to the extent that China rejects peaceful means of dispute resolution. This triangle without the United States is hopelessly mired in ambivalence until there is clarity that Washington is either putting pressure on Beijing to split with Pyongyang after determining that it is not being helpful or is distancing itself from Tokyo in the hope that this will make possible a compromise in support of peace and stability. So far, the former result seems much more likely, as Beijing is not deemed to be favorable to confidence-building measures with Tokyo or with Southeast Asian littoral states.
If that is the case, Seoul will be under new pressure to reverse its tilt toward Beijing.

China-ROK-US relations may not have captured the spotlight of late, but they could be the most important triangle of the four for determining the geopolitical balance in the region. While Gilbert Rozman wrote the paper on this subject, Evans Revere presented his views on the panel, stimulating the discussion. On the eve of the panel Obama met Xi in The Hague with Russia’s actions in Ukraine eclipsing North Korea on the agenda. Also in The Hague, Park met Xi with Xi’s interest in undercutting the ROK-Japan meeting as part of the trilateral summit on people’s minds. Thus, there was scant notice of the China-ROK-US triangle. Park prefers to keep it that way, as if building greater trust with Xi is in no way at the expense of close ties with Obama.

The panel pointed out that Park’s back-to-back summits in May-June 2013 with Obama and then Xi had been welcomed as a great success. She was honored in the White House and the Capitol, and then she was feted in Beijing. This exceptional juxtaposition occurred, in part, because the Obama administration was supportive of efforts to engage China more earnestly in the hope that it would pressure Pyongyang, and the Xi administration wanted to send a clear message to Kim Jong-un by raising relations with Seoul to a new level. Park recognized that Lee Myung-bak had not done enough to engage Beijing, a new, strong Chinese leader opened an opportunity, and circumstances had changed in the case of North Korea with the possibility of a new dynamic. In Lee’s time, China had hampered the ROK’s response to North Korea in 2010, but then in December of that year it changed course, and Seoul might seize this opening, widened substantially in 2012, to make China a diplomatic target as a key to enlivening regional diplomacy—the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative. Winning Washington’s full-fledged endorsement of her leadership, Park could concentrate on diplomacy with Beijing: to gain its confidence that cooperation would not come at the expense of China’s security, to help it to become comfortable with the very idea of reunification, and to sell the idea of ROK-led reunification of the peninsula. These goals required a vastly improved Seoul-Beijing relationship.

As long as there was some hope that Kim Jong-un would actually combine guns and butter, as his slogan announced, and that Xi’s “new type of major power relations” meant greater cooperation with the United States, Park’s strategy seemed to have potential. Washington made it clear to Pyongyang that the road to improved ties went through Seoul, and Beijing did not contradict that. Yet, despite periods of hope, Pyongyang kept reverting to contempt for Seoul. In these more troubled conditions, Seoul and Washington took some solace in the message that Beijing is unnerved and is pointedly indicating to Pyongyang that it has different options. New North Korean threats seemed to be driving Beijing closer to Seoul and Washington. Yet, stepping back from such impressionistic conclusions, analysts determined that China is still backing North Korea due to its wider interests. That finding fueled divided views on what to do next: to wait for a new North Korean provocation in the hope that at last China would be so frustrated that it would intensify its pressure on Pyongyang; or to retilt back to the United States by strengthening the alliance in ways that would not be welcome by Beijing. This was Seoul’s dilemma, and Washington’s too, as it had to recalibrate its policy to Beijing with more than this triangle or North Korea in mind.

The discussion of the Sino-ROK-US triangle also proved to be lively. One argument is that China’s real purpose is to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington as well as Seoul and Tokyo, separating the two alliances by treating them in a very different manner. In this way, it might wean Seoul from its longtime protector, using a realist approach in regard to the North Korean threat while simultaneously using history as a way to construct a shared identity opposed to Japan. If that is China’s objective, then South Korea would be wise to keep its distance, as many say it has, perhaps to the effect of discouraging China from continuing this approach and making it easier to recommit to North Korea, should the opportunity arise. A second argument was less pessimistic about the possibility of working with China, while also recognizing that it leans more toward North Korea than South Korea. After all, in 2006-2007 the pressure China exerted on North Korea helped to get the February agreement and in December 2010 China clearly moved away from defending North Korea. Given this history and current Chinese distrust of Kim Jong-un, it makes sense to keep trying to work with China, albeit warily. North Korea’s unpredictable behavior could induce new moves by China that would serve both South Korean and US national interests.

The discussion of the Sino-ROK-US triangle spilled over into consideration of the Japan-ROK-US triangle. If there is a basis for optimism about China’s moves in a new crisis caused by North Korea, then South Korea might have reason to be cautious on how actively it supports a strengthened alliance triangle. If however, pessimism prevails, then the alliances are even more important for the defense of South Korea. Indeed, it is argued that the tightening three-way alliance in late 2010 in the face of North Korean aggression is what drove China to toughen its policy toward the North in circumstances where Obama gave Hu Jintao a way out, leading to their January summit. If the peak of the alliance triangle in 2010 had that effect, why not bolster the triangle again, if not for other reasons, to influence China’s North Korean policy. If it is too late for that, given China’s growing self-confidence, then it presumably is also too late to expect the optimistic scenario of winning Chinese trust on a matter it considers critical to the regional balance of power and the Sino-US struggle in Asia.

It is this triangle that gave Seoul a sense of empowerment. Its voice was being heard in Beijing on North Korean matters more than in the past. Washington was trusting it to take the initiative on North Korea and in addressing Beijing’s concerns over the North as never before. Yet, there was no sign in the discussion that this role could be sustained. If North Korea resorted to a serious provocation, Washington could be expected to press Beijing for a response, and the way Beijing reacted would depend much more on its calculations about Washington than about Seoul. In this triangle with the two greatest powers in the region, South Korea had a narrow, presumably brief, window of opportunity little amenable to its own policies or actions. Only the fact that Obama had other urgent concerns and relied on “strategic patience” and Xi was putting pressure on Kim Jong-un and Abe Shinzo and accepted the utility of an interlude of a “new type of major power relations” and “trustpolitik” allowed Park to proceed in the spring of 2014 as if her approach from early 2013 was successful. A closer look at the fourth triangle belies optimism about its prospects by late 2014.

Russian-Korean Peninsula-Chinese relations differ from these other triangles because North Korea is less an object of joint diplomacy than a partner on equal footing with South Korea in the way triangular (quadrangular) relations are seen. Russian and Chinese reasoning about North Korea is fundamentally different, even as they profess to be committed to denuclearization. With China gaining greater leverage over diplomacy with North Korea and Russia rethinking its “pivot” to Asia in the light of developments in Ukraine, the panel approached this triangle in a new manner compared to how it might have been approached previously. Above all, it was Vladimir Putin’s shifting thinking toward the other sides of the triangle that served as the focus of discussion. While some aspects of Alexander Lukin’s presentation appeared contradictory to discussants, it stimulated wider reflection on the triangle.

Lukin depicted Putin as pragmatic and free of ideology, seeking good ties with the neighbors of Russia above all, while also desiring to make Russia a center of power. In Asia, whose priority was rising even before the Ukraine crisis made Russia more hostile to the West, Putin seeks diversification of Russian international relations. To achieve this, Russia continues to strive to strengthen relations with China and seeks in North Korea a partner that will reduce one-sided dependency on China. This logic escaped many, who saw Russia’s further emphasis on China as contrary to the goal of diversification and its North Korean gambit as a force for triangularity in which China is the driving force. Clarity about Russia proved a challenge for the panel.

Lukin explained that Russia is pragmatic toward North Korea, seeking peace and stability through stable relations with it. At the same time, he said that its territory is close to the North’s nuclear test site and the local military exercises and civil defense have followed the North’s tests. Yet, Russia insists that only political and diplomatic means exist for changing the status quo. No matter what North Korea does, it appears, Russia would reward it and assume that the result will be stability in the region rather than the threat of more dangerous behavior in the future. While there has been much talk of China’s frustration with Kim Jong-un and its application of pressure, however limited, to get him to change his ways, Russia now is softer in its approach, opposing increased pressure. In light of the proclaimed success of last November’s visit by Putin to South Korea, leading to visa-free travel that makes it more accessible to Russians than Japan or China, it too is cited as part of Russia’s regional strategy. In brief, this is depiction of all-around Asianism without concern for the dynamics of power relations in the region, only for balancing ties to the West.

Incredulous listeners wondered how a Machiavellian leader such as Putin could be so oblivious to the power balancing rivalries gripping Northeast Asia. While Lukin stayed with the Russian script of not discussing power balancing toward China, the Ukrainian shadow apparently justifies warnings about balancing the United States. This means calibrating relations with North Korea depending on the state of Russo-US relations, including decisions about supporting sanctions on the North or even tacitly supporting it. South Korea, despite the desire for investment in the resources of the Russian Far East and Siberia, seems to be an afterthought—not important enough to influence the geopolitics of Russian policy toward North Korea. Sparing Moscow the necessity of spelling out its anti-alliance position, Lukin appears to cite China’s firm opposition to reunification under a US ally and enduring vindication of the Korean War as inescapable realities to which Russia does not object. Instead, it presents itself as the true champion of a united Korea, trying in this way to gain an edge with South Korea while avoiding giving offence to North Korea. Yet, this facade may have no longer been needed in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s ruthless quest for more succor in the East after becoming an outcaste in the West.

Discussion of Russo-North Korean and Sino-North Korean relations did not focus on comparisons of which state was more supportive of the North in circumstances of increased tension with the United States or which was more dismissive of South Korea’s interests. It reinforced the conclusion that the Korean War matters in the anti-imperialist ideology of both states, for China in the legitimation of the PLA and the CCP as well as in renewed praise of Mao Zedong, in this case as a great strategist in an unbroken legacy of foreign policy successes. The fact that today’s North Korea is standing up to the United States, demanding that it removes its troops from the peninsula and abrogate its security treaty and nuclear umbrella (perhaps with Japan too) is appealing to both states as well. When Moscow joins Beijing in calling for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks without preconditions, it is implicitly endorsing a broad, new agenda with denuclearization supposedly to come later, ignoring the fact that North Korea insists that its goal is to win acceptance as a nuclear power. Thus, the Sino-Russian consensus on the geopolitics of this triangle appears to have grown and to be poised for further growth, as Russia becomes a pariah in the West and as China proceeds from demonizing Japan to blaming the United States as its backer and the real barrier standing in the way of China’s urgent maritime “core interests.”

When the subject of what lessons North Korea has learned from Ukraine’s inability to defend itself after giving up its nuclear weapons was discussed, the argument was considered that now Pyongyang has reason to demand more assurances and greater acceptance of its military threat capacity. This kind of logic, long popular in China and Russia and used to put the onus on the United States for failing to offer suitable assurances since it really is plotting regime change, drew criticism. There is no sign that North Korea has any intention of abandoning its nuclear weapons, while it has had many opportunities to extract assurances that fall far short of ambitions that extend well beyond regime survival. In the triangular context, the Ukrainian case is not changing assumptions about North Korea, but reinforcing geopolitical thinking of East vs. West in which the Korean Peninsula is subsumed in a broader calculus.

Conclusions for each of the four triangles should be integrated for a wide-ranging grasp of the strategic dynamics now engulfing South Korea. To start, consider how in each triangle one country at least is tugging South Korea in a new approach within this context. The United States is prodding it to solidify the alliance triangle through improved ties to Japan. China, in contrast, is striving to weaken the regional core triangle by pulling South Korea away from Japan. Russia, in turn, is directing its attention at stronger ties with China while keeping North Korea in reserve without acknowledging that this means marginalizing South Korea’s role. That leaves the important triangle for managing North Korea, in which neither China nor the United States acknowledges the tug-of-war over South Korea, but it exists in some form and is likely to intensify. These multiple vectors mean that South Korea is on the front line in geopolitical maneuvering in the critical Northeast Asian region. Although in the past few years North Korea has not done much to influence these dynamics, it has shown that it is capable of doing so. Even its mere presence makes it a factor in the maneuvering of other countries to reshape the balance of great power relations.

All four triangles are becoming little more than an overlay on a polarized region, in which Sino-US dynamics are becoming determinative. Japan has moved decisively into the US bloc, pressing for bloc acknowledgment and solidarity more than US leaders are doing. Russia is now likely to acknowledge what it has pretended does not exist—that it stands with China in opposition to the other bloc in contradiction to its insistent claims of multipolarity. North Korea may balk at the terms China prefers for it to receive more clear-cut support, but the alternative of isolation is not likely to suffice for long. That leaves South Korea alone in trying to bridge the Sino-US divide, in having the most triangles in play, and in holding out hope that it can be an active diplomatic force in this complex region when North Korea, Japan, and Russia, one-by-one, have been dissuaded of that aspiration. As uncertainty about two other triangles—the Russia-Korean Peninsular-China one and even the Japan-ROK-US one—diminishes, South Korea will find it harder to proceed without again drawing closer to the United States. This will increase the chances of diminishing the distance from Japan. The fact that Seoul has little influence over Beijing and now is less likely to satisfy China in the triangle with Japan or the triangle with the United States, let alone in engagement toward North Korea, was not far below the surface in much of the discussion at the panel on triangles with South Korea in Northeast Asia.

None of the four triangles are currently stable. Northeast Asia is in flux, and South Korea is at the center of the rebalancing under way. In 2014 it is in the unusual situation of diplomatic volatility with multiple combinations of countries. Before long, a more settled regional framework is likely to take hold. Discussions about the four existing triangles highlight how this emerging framework may be taking shape.

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