South Korea: Between a rock and a hard place?
On 12th January 1950, then Secretary of State Dean Acheson, defined an American ‘defensive perimeter’, running from Japan, through to the Philippines. He specifically failed to mention both the Republic of Korea, and Taiwan. In late June, North Korea, sponsored by the Soviets, invaded the South in the hope of reunifying the nation. The ‘West’ too often overemphasis its impact on the world, suggesting its actions will affect the internal functionings and actions of other States more often than is the case. However, in this circumstance, it’s hard to see how, had America specifically said the Korean peninsula was within its orbit, the Soviets, who were cautious in Western Europe precisely because of NATO, would have sanctioned Kim’s mission. Without American and British support in the end, South Korea would have succumbed to the Kim’s rule. Today, a similar conundrum is starting to assert itself. South Korea, this year celebrating 70 years of its alliance with the US, is faced with a different but by no less existential problem than it faced all those years ago. Politically and militarily it is aligned with the US, but economically, China is starting to have a greater impact in the South, so much so, that Seoul now finds itself on a tightrope where its economic prosperity stems from a regime that is in a ‘Values War’ (as coined by British former Diplomat Charles Parton) with the country it relies on for its security. Money talks, but does Seoul have the diplomatic flexibility to keep all sides happy?
In the 1980s, when Chinese trade with the outside world including Korea was still negligible, America was the dominant importer of Korean goods - not even Japan imported half as much as the US. Since 2003, however, China has established itself as South Korea’s largest export destination, in 2019 consisting of 25.1% of total exports. Trade is most often a win-win, and this percentage is only likely to increase as Chinese growth re-establishes itself faster than other nations after the pandemic.
For a look at how this might alter China-Korea relations, it is prescient to look no further than Australia, and this is why this canary in the coal mine is not simply something watched by America and the UK with curiosity, but why South Koreans have taken note. In 2019, 32.7% of total Australian exports went to China. Australians are notoriously independent minded and ready for a scuffle both on the sporting pitch and off it, but not even Canberra could have predicted Chinese wrath for daring to question its actions in the South China Sea, and in pursuing its Belt and Road Initiative in Victoria, nor, more importantly, its attempts to influence Australian politics. The Communist Party’s mouthpiece ‘The Global Times’ did its part to try to improve diplomatic relations by calling Australia ‘gum stuck to China’s shoe’ in an editorial in late April, but all this sound and fury between the two nations has only led to the recent tariffs on Australian wine and coal, whose impact on Australian growth we are unlikely to see until next year.
This spat has reminded the cautious South Koreans of how it was treated in the aftermath of approving America’s deployment of the THAAD anti-missile defence system in 2017 on Korean territory. For 16 months, Chinese tourists were banned from visiting and there were boycotts of South Korean companies and products. The latest escalation in Australia on top of this experience makes clear that if South Korea falls out of line in its foreign policy and takes side with the Americans, the increasing percentage of South Korean exports entering China will be cut.
Korea’s security, however, relies firmly on the US, and with Joe Biden promising that ‘America is back’, making it clear to all that he meant for alliances to be firmly re-established as the centre of American foreign policy, difficult choices will have to be made as to how Seoul will engage with America without upsetting Beijing. Under Trump, who took a hammer to the US-Korean relationship and vowed to make Korea pay more for American military presence, it was arguably politically easier to align itself more towards China. The same can be said of its relationship with Japan too. After Abe’s increasingly patriotic rhetoric, and refusal to reconsider reparations for atrocities committed by the Japanese during its occupation of the Korean peninsula, tensions culminated in August 2019 when Japan announced it was removing Seoul’s favoured trade partner status. With Trump in the White House and the Japanese relationship once more in the deep freeze, it’s no surprise Korea moved further towards China.
That being said, it must not be forgotten that South Korea is a democratic nation, and as such calls from within to stay close to its ideological ally the US, will be just as large as the business communities economic interests. Korea’s constitution expressly states all of its citizens are equal and all citizens have freedom of religion, association and assembly. As a result, the more abhorrent of China’s actions have not gone unnoticed. A Pew global poll from October 2020 suggested 83% of South Koreans had no confidence that President Xi of China would do the “right thing in world affairs”. Extreme nationalism has never set well with Seoul, and neither do allegations of slavery in Xinjiang, both of which South Korea was subject to in the early 1900s under Japanese colonialism.
Human rights are no small matter in South Korea, which segways nicely into another important matter to Seoul, reunification. The dream since 1953 has been to see the North and South reunited. Indeed, part of the reason the security pact with America exists is because of North Korean belligerence and its acquisition of nuclear weapons. However, North Korea can only continue its degenerate ways because of its relationship with Beijing which turns a blind eye to them and which, despite being strained from time to time, ultimately continues as one of dependence. It is easy to see why China would not want a reunified Korea under Seoul, it’s the same reason China entered the Korean war in the first place, it does not want American soldiers on its borders. On this important case, therefore, China is unlikely to be of any help.
All of these reasons suggest that with the US and China relationship worsening by the day, Seoul’s manoeuvrability is sinking. Either it stays silent on Chinese actions to avoid Australia’s fate, or it moves closer to the US once again at the risk of upsetting its largest trading partner. The Korean War may have ended in a stalemate - there was no ‘winner’ in the end, but if China is able to coerce South Korea into following its lead, rather than the US’s, so that the whole Korean Peninsula is firmly under Chinese tutelage and silent to the CCP’s transgressions, perhaps the War would finally be finished, and it would be clear, the Chinese won.