With the heightening rivalry between the US and China, the pressure on South Korea to position itself between the two powers is growing as well. But in practice, the choice facing the East Asian nation is not just a binary one. To further understand the context and its implications, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Korea Office spoke with South Korean and international experts.
On the one side, South Korea relies on the US militarily as the US a still has operational control of the country’s armed forces in the event that war breaks out. On the other side, the potential for economic reprisals alone are considerable as China accounts for more than a quarter of South Korean exports (twice the proportion that goes to the US).
In this video: Prof John Delury (Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies), Prof Moon Chung-In (Chairman of the Sejong Institute and former Special Advisor to the President of South Korea for Foreign Affairs and National Security), Prof Kim Yeon-chul (former Minister of Unification and Professor at the Department of Korea Unification at Inje University), H.E. Michael Reiffenstuel (Ambassador of Germany to the Republic of Korea) and H.E. Maria Castillo-Fernandez (Ambassador of the European Union to the Republic of Korea).
In July 2016, the US and South Korea decided to deploy the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defence system in South Korea, arguing that it will make it possible to counter North Korea’s ballistic missiles. Due to range, the Chinese government argued the THAAD is in fact against China and strongly opposed the deployment. Consequently, China punished South Korea by restricting tourism and imposing tariffs.
This could happen again. In this sense, South Korea is facing a very difficult diplomatic task to balance the two powers. The country wants to maintain the existing allyship with the US while continuing the strategic cooperative partnership with China.
Closer to home, a move towards either side could exacerbate the challenges Seoul faces over North Korea. Taking a side against China and the US could consolidate the division of the peninsula, pushing the objectives of establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula further beyond reach.
The Korean War, which has not officially ended, has been both a civil war and an international war. South Korea is even excluded from the states that signed the armistice. Against this background, without participation and support from both the US and China it would be de facto impossible to establish peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, even with a consensus within South Korea and the North Korean government. Therefore, cooperation with the US and China is inevitable. But the question is whether they have real willingness to solve the longstanding security problem on the Peninsula, because the tension and confrontation also promotes their own national interests.
Against these backgrounds South Korea needs multiple economic, political and security partners. The European Union would be a good potential partner and a bulwark against having to choose between two sides. Both share common values and interests not only in trade, industry, energy, and climate but also political and security issues. There is potential to intensify political dialogues and cooperation. However, it is important that there is a focus on promoting real multilateral cooperation and finding new structure that will take the region beyond a New Cold War paradigm.
Sung Dain is a project manager at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Korea Office. For more information about our work in Korea, visit korea.fes.de.
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