In Seoul’s calculus, China is North Korea’s éminence grise  

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol assumed the presidency advocating for enhanced relations with the US. Recently on April 27, during a state visit to the US, Yoon delivered a speech to a joint session of the Congress, amid increasing American recognition of South Korea as a key ally in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Alluding to “great American heroes” from the Korean War in the 1950s, Yoon then outlined existing bilateral economic ties between his country and the US, and called for even more security collaboration.  

“Korea is committed to fostering a ‘free, peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific’” based on “inclusiveness, trust and reciprocity,” he declared. “We will strengthen the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.” 

Customizing his statements to his American audience, Yoon exemplified how South Korean companies Hyundai Motor and Samsung Electronics have been investing heavily in the US.

“I hope to see more economic cooperation in other parts of America,” Yoon remarked. “In this regard, I count on your keen interest and support.”

Nonetheless, the Washington Declaration, a defense agreement that would amplify South Korea’s opinions on how America would mobilize its nuclear umbrella in cases such as a North Korean attack, has been touted as the tour de force of Yoon’s US trip.  

“Our two countries have agreed to immediate bilateral presidential consultations in the event of North Korea’s nuclear attack and promised to respond swiftly, overwhelmingly and decisively using the full force of the alliance, including the United States’ nuclear weapons,” Yoon said, with Seoul pledging not to develop nuclear weapons of its own. 

The China connection

However, doubts remain over whether this recent declaration facilitated by Yoon and Democrat President Joe Biden correctly addressed the fundamental issues threatening South Korea’s security. 

While North Korea authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un has stepped up the frequency of his nuclear missile tests and sparked fears in neighboring South Korea and Japan as to the extent of his military ambitions, care must be taken not to overlook what goes on behind the scenes in Pyongyang. 

After all, following the April 27 Declaration, Beijing voiced “strong dissatisfaction” to Seoul over its joint statement with Washington about the importance for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, a foreign ministry statement announced on April 28. 

Chinese Department of Asian Affairs Director-General Liu Jinsong also met with South Korean Embassy Minister Kang Sang-wook on April 27 to highlight China’s position on Taiwan, calling for South Korea to strictly abide by the “One-China” principle.

Furthermore, China cautioned Washington and Seoul against “provoking confrontation” with North Korea, after Biden and Yoon threatened that Pyongyang would witness the “end” of its leadership should it tap on its nuclear arsenal. “All parties should face up to the crux of the (Korean) peninsula issue and play a constructive role in promoting a peaceful settlement of the issue,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said.

Since the 1950s, the Chinese Communist Party has been leveraging the Kim dynasty’s ambitions, to politically, economically, and militarily aid Pyongyang against adversaries like the US. In 2021, Beijing and Pyongyang marked the 60th anniversary of the China-North Korea Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance that was signed on 11 July 1961, pledging to renew the Treaty for another two decades, as they had previously in 1981 and 2001. 

Despite Pyongyang’s unhappiness with Beijing’s choice to reboot ties with South Korea in the early 1990s, both sides still saw the need for North Korea’s survival and regime stability and survival, arguably due to geopolitical interests and their shared ideologies of single Communist/Workers’ Party states. 

Even when Beijing enforced sanctions on Pyongyang amid the risks of a US-North Korea nuclear confrontation in 2017, China nevertheless made it evident that it would come to North Korea’s help if the US and South Korea attacked it first, under Article II of the Treaty. 

China is largest security threat to region

Little wonder that seven out of 10 South Koreans regarded China as the largest security threat to their country among neighboring countries, apart from North Korea, a 2021 survey by the state-run Korea Institute of National Unification (KINU) showed. 

71.8 percent of the respondents singled China out as the largest threat to the nation, followed by Japan with 21.1 percent and the US with 6.3 percent. The institute explained that China’s “coercive and disrespectful attitude” toward neighboring countries, repression of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and belligerence towards Taiwan may have dampened respondents’ views on the country. 

In statements to the Los Angeles Times, Chung Jae-ho, professor of international relations and director of the Program on US-China Relations at Seoul National University, posited that Seoul has been for years wary of riling Beijing to avoid additional economic retaliations, after China’s economic sanctions against Seoul due to the latter’s missile defense system, known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). 

“There’s a sort of Sinophobia where they worry in advance, without knowing what is going to come from China,” Chung said. “They define Korea’s national interest mainly in economic terms and think they shouldn’t do something that would tick off China’s tendencies to use economic sanctions. They won’t even try to push back.”

Owing to the China-South Korean missile dispute, companies in South Korea including carmaker Hyundai, the country’s second-largest conglomerate, faced draconian regulations in China and huge decreases in sales, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.

“THAAD is a recent example of what China’s willing to do to punish countries like South Korea,” said Jung H. Pak, a former CIA analyst and senior fellow at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, the latter having been proven to have numerous dubious connections to prominent left-leaning and socialist political figures in the US, according to public spending records. 

While calls for the US to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea have increased, Dr. Bong Young-shik of Yonsei University’s Institute for North Korean Studies said it was highly unlikely that America would showcase its full nuclear abilities in South Korea. 

“Relieving the security anxiety of the majority of the South Korean population is an inherently difficult task for the US, if not impossible, because the taste of the pudding is in its eating, but tasting the pudding is deadly,” Dr. Bong said. 

Besides its frequent saber-rattling, Beijing also has claimed the high moral ground, lecturing both South Korea and the US about their deepening ties.

“What the US is doing … provokes confrontation between camps, undermines the nuclear non-proliferation regime and the strategic interests of other countries,” the Chinese foreign ministry said, notwithstanding Chinese actions in the disputed South China Sea waters that have undermined Beijing’s ties with Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as actions that threatened regional trade and stability. 

In wake of the aforementioned realities, if South Korea ignores China’s role in undermining its stability and security, it is highly possible that Beijing would continue to bug Seoul, with or without Pyongyang.

Photo credit: iStock/ Jui-Chi Chan. April 29, 2019: 20-meter-tall Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il statues, Mansu Hill Grand Monument, Mansudae, Pyongyang.

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