Seoul Ends Diplomatic Ambiguity on China
Continuing North Korean provocation tries South Korea’s patience
By: Shim Jae Hoon
When China opened diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992 – in defiance of fierce opposition from neighbor and ally North Korea – it triggered expectation that Beijing was ready to play a stabilizing role on the Korean peninsula.
Three decades later, that optimism has been replaced by a sense that Beijing is actually playing the two parts of Korea against each other as tensions rise, with China refusing to intercede and restrain its neighbor from arming itself with nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles. Placed under global sanctions for violating the United Nations Security Council’s ban on missiles and nuclear weapons, the Pyongyang regime depends on China for its lifeline support.
As China faces criticism for tacitly supporting the Kims’ highly dangerous military provocations, Seoul is coming under pressure to examine its options with Beijing. South Korea maintains robust economic relations, with their two-way trade running in excess of US$300 billion a year. For fear of compromising economic interests, Seoul has maintained a policy of discreet silence, refusing to demand action on the part of China. Among local critics, it has been called a policy of diplomatic ambiguity, saying as little as possible about China’s double standard.
But patience has been running thin as the North, in seeming defiance of both the US and its partner China, continues to mount its missile launches. In the past two months of October and November, North Korea test-fired about 20 long- and short-range ballistic missiles, bringing the total this year to over 50 test launchings. At least three of them were ICBM-class flying over the Japan Sea. One short-range missile dropped near the southern maritime border of South Korea, prompting a government alert to take shelter.
On November 18, days after the Xi Jinping-Joe Biden summit talks at the G-20 Summit in Bali, the North fired a Hwasong-17 continental ballistic missile toward Japan, shocking the Japanese government into issuing an alert. A liquid propelled, vehicle-launched missile was apparently successfully fired, provoking shock and anger in Japan, with Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida declaring it “could by no means be tolerated.” US and Japanese officials said the Hwasong-17 type ICBM was capable of hitting all cities of the continental United States.
At previous UN Security Council sessions, China and Russia refused to endorse a resolution condemning the provocation. China’s ambassador Zhang Jun, defending North Korean action, said North Korea’s action was in response to US-South Korean military exercises. He claimed Seoul should resume peace talks with the North. Whereupon chief US delegate Linda Thomas-Greenfield declared China was making a mockery of the UN charter.
In the past five years under the previous center-left government, in an effort to seek cooperation, Seoul not only failed to condemn China’s stand on North Korea, it refused to join the global campaign against China’s poor human rights record, triggering criticism at home and abroad of Seoul being overly circumspect with Beijing, in what critics here called diplomatic ambiguity. At the UN, South Korea refused to endorse a resolution investigating China’s controversial human rights records.
Seoul’s long policy of ambiguity on China is now coming under a full spotlight in Seoul, with new President Yoon Suk Yeol, who came to office last May vowing change. A conservative leader, Yoon is out to move Seoul’s earlier neutral position on Beijing closer to the US position not only on China itself but also on Russia.
Seoul’s hardening new posture against Beijing was evident at the recent East Asian Summit in Phnom Penh and at the G-20 Summit in Bali. Explaining Seoul’s new Indo-Pacific strategy, Yoon declared that South Korea is opposed to big powers – namely China and Russia -- “changing the status quo by force,” referring to China’s unilateral maritime claims over the East and South China Seas and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It was the first such detailed presentation of South Korea’s position on China and Russia, the two countries with which Seoul carries on a considerable trade.
It also followed recent reports – feebly challenged by the Yoon government – that Seoul was exporting 10 0,000 rounds of artillery shells to the US, which presumably would be shipped to Ukraine. That reverses earlier pledge against Seoul providing weapons to Ukraine.
Yoon couched these statements as a “rule-based international order respecting a peaceful Indo-Pacific region.” It clearly sets out South Korea’s new international vision, coinciding with that of the Biden administration’s policy regarding China and Russia. Although it remained unspoken, Seoul apparently included Taiwan in its policy against “changing geographic status by force.” Its language appeared so strong that at home that the new policy stance raised concern from the majority opposition inside the parliament.
Departing from past precedents, Yoon took up the North Korean nuclear issue directly at the East Asian Summit at Phnom Penh, calling for China’s “active and constructive role” over North Korea’s nuclear and missile challenges. Later at a 25-minute talk with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sideline of G-20 Summit, Yoon pressed for China’s intervention, saying pointedly that Seoul was pursuing peace based on the value of freedom.
Xi’s response was as timeless as it was unsurprising, repeating the old line that it was the job of two parts of Korea to work out an agreement. He repeated China’s stand that two sides on the Korean peninsula should continue talks in the spirit of what he called “multilateralism,” presumably implying China’s opposition to unilateral domination by the US. Seoul is diplomatically so estranged from Beijing that the talks in Bali ended without Yoon promising when he will visit Beijing in response to Xi's invitation. Yoon repeated it was Xi's turn to come to Seoul first.
In an earlier three-hour-long talk with US President Joe Biden, Xi repeated the claim that China has no control over Kim Jong Un’s behavior, adding China “had no obligation to dissuade North Korea from engaging in another nuclear test.” Biden said he had the impression China had no control over Kim Jong Un’s behavior, but nevertheless hinted Xi may try stopping Kim from going ahead with another nuclear test.
But barely a week after the world’s two most powerful leaders had discussed his behavior, Kim showed his defiance by firing a Hwasong-17 intercontinental missile towards the Sea of Japan. US and Japanese military spokesmen declared the missile was capable of reaching all targets in the continental US cities. In what appeared to be a show of contempt over the US and China taking up his belligerence, North Korea released a photograph showing Kim, in his familiar flight jacket, strolling in front of a missile launching pad, holding his teenage daughter’s hand. It appeared to be sending a message that even if he were dead, his daughter would take over in yet another case of the family’s dynastic succession.
The photograph seemed to send another important message: with Putin gripped by the Ukraine war and China preoccupied with Taiwan Strait tensions, he alone was capable of taunting the Biden administration with a powerful missile. While Kim’s provocative behavior momentarily stole the show in East Asia, the trilateral US-Japan-Korea alliance was in close consultation, bringing a wave of US B1B strategic bombers and fighter jets scrambling from Okinawa to the Korean skies. It was a part of quick response agreed recently between Seoul and Washington to deal strongly with Pyongyang’s provocations.
The Biden administration has agreed to provide nuclear coverage to Seoul in the event the North launched a nuclear attack against the South. “Any nuclear attack on the South will end the North Korean regime,” assured US defense secretary Lloyd Austin.
Against that backdrop, South Korean fighters unleashed air-to-surface missiles near North Korea’s east coast following Kim’s ICBM launching. It was part of Yoon’s message that Kim’s provocations will not go unanswered from now on.