How can SK end its diplomatic dilemma?

By Hwang Jae-ho Source:Global Times Published: 2019/12/2 20:03:41

Photo: IC

Although South Korea made a last-minute decision to keep in place the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan on November 22, the country finds its diplomatic relations "besieged" from all sides.

From a wider perspective, South Korea's diplomatic and security problems lie mainly in ties with the US, China, Japan and North Korea. Seoul and Washington have disputes on the sharing of military cost as well as South Korean participation in the Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Tokyo and Seoul have differences over wartime forced labor issue and Japan's removal of South Korea from its white list of preferred trading partners. Moreover, the Beijing-Seoul relationship has not yet come out of the shadows over the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense on South Korean soil.

South Korea's diplomatic dilemma is a result of changes in the global pattern, and is a common challenge facing all small and medium-sized countries. The US is the major source of this challenge as can be seen from Washington's Indo-Pacific Strategy which is centered on military partnerships. All the US wants is to realize its own national interests.

US frequent withdrawals from international organizations and treaties, and its petty moves against its allies have put South Korea, a country trying to maintain the original notion of alliance, in distress.

The rise of unilateralism is shaking the concept of alliance, which was previously based on pillars such as ideology. If it continues like this, despite some US political and military elites' efforts to maintain alliances, further alienation between Washington and its allies is inevitable.

In that case, US alliances will be further weakened or even disintegrate, leaving only certain core allies as US "agents." 

US allies like South Korea which lay stress on morality have already begun to be squeezed. And as a primary ally of Washington, Tokyo is currently pursuing a "Japan First" policy similar to Washington's "America First." That being said, hidden contradictions are lurking in ties between South Korea and Japan. 

Even so, the diplomatic predicaments faced by South Korea cannot be blamed entirely on external factors. South Korean President Moon Jae-in's administration should push forward a more creative foreign policy.

In the long run, the South Korean government has to keep a watchful eye on changes in US foreign policy. The fetters of South Korea's diplomacy lie mainly in its north, and it is thus fundamentally tough for Seoul to be truly independent in diplomacy. Once unforeseen circumstances emerge, South Korea can hardly reject US requests. 

If Washington keeps following its current foreign policy, there will be increasing discontent in the international community, and Seoul will be in trouble for being a US ally.

Although South Korea is showing its sincerity to the US as much as possible, it has said "no" in a growing number of cases. If Washington is to build its Indo-Pacific Strategy as a "new NATO," Seoul will by no means take part. And South Korea can hardly accept excessive US demands for the sharing of defense cost. In addition, Seoul will also not budge from its original stance on US desire to increase the deployment of strategic weapons in the Northeast Asian country.

In dealing with Japan, South Korea should also stick to its principles. Since South Korea's top court ruled in November 2018 that Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries must compensate South Korean forced labor during WWII, Tokyo has made clear its strategy to contain Seoul. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's image has taken a beating among South Koreans. Regardless of the renewal of the GSOMIA, Seoul-Tokyo ties will remain strained in the near future. This is an unavoidable pain in reorganizing the regional order and reshaping Japan-South Korea relations.

To get out of the dilemma, South Korea's top priority is to strengthen cooperation with China. Although Seoul has already been aware of Beijing's significance, it has not given enough attention to the country. 

It is speculated that after a three-way summit in December between South Korea, China and Japan, President Xi Jinping may visit South Korea in 2020 when the time is ripe. Seoul should be committed to building a new type of bilateral ties with Beijing.

The two sides can achieve a win-win outcome if they join hands to strengthen cooperation and contribute to regional prosperity and peace. If the two countries can establish new partnerships related to not only the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue but also the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative and the South Korea-proposed New Southern Policy, as well as other multilateral platforms, a new type of China-South Korea ties can be built.

The author is Director of Global Security Cooperation Center at Seoul-based Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.


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