South Korea looks for place in the sun

Source:Global Times Published: 2014-7-10 19:38:01

Editor's Note:

Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent decision to pick Seoul over Pyongyang for his first Korean visit has caused many to speculate that China may be turning away from North Korea. Is this accurate? What's the significance of Xi's visit? Will Seoul move closer to Beijing? The Global Times (GT) talked to Kim Hankwon (Kim), director of the Center for China Policy, the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and Jin Canrong (Jin), deputy dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China, over these issues.

Jin Canrong


Kim Hankwon

GT: Xi's visit has broken the precedent of China's top leaders visiting the North ahead of the South. What message is the arrangement trying to send to Pyongyang?

Kim: Xi's decision sends a strong warning to Pyongyang that China will no longer tolerate North Korea's arbitrary behavior including military provocations as well as nuclear and long-range missile tests. These actions have seriously harmed China's strategic interests in Northeast Asia.

However, I do not think that China has abandoned the North or fundamentally changed its policy toward Pyongyang. China will maintain a balanced relationship toward the two Koreas.

Jin: Former Chinese state councilor Tang Jiaxuan once put forward the idea that China-North Korean relations should be normalized, steering away from the special relationship formed during the Cold War. North Korea shouldn't count on the ally status to disregard China's national interests.

If the China-North Korea relationship is a normal state-to-state relationship, then Beijing could arrange its top leader's official overseas trip based on its realistic demands.

Currently, the conditions are not mature for Xi to visit Pyongyang while the Sino-South Korean relations have been witnessing smooth development, thus Xi's visit to Seoul first becomes a natural choice of China to maintain normal state-to-state relationships with all its neighboring countries.

GT: Some predict a closer Beijing-Seoul relationship, even an alliance. How will South Korea balance between relying on China for economy and on the US for security? Will it shift?

Kim: South Korea's foremost security challenge is North Korea's nuclear weapons. Were North Korea to attack the South using nuclear weapons, would China protect South Korea militarily? That is why South Korea has to balance between relying on China for its economy and on the US for its security, and this is unlikely to change in the near future.

Jin: South Korean strategists believe that the US and China will be the two strongest powers in the world in the future, so South Korea in order to survive and develop has to maintain good relations with both. Relying on China for economy and the US for security has proven effective so far for Seoul. There is no need to change, especially if China and the US can successfully build up a new model of major power relationship.

GT: How does the public opinion affect official policy of South Korea in terms of its relations with major powers?

Kim: According to public opinion surveys conducted by the Asan Institute prior to the summit, more than 60 percent of Koreans view China as a cooperative partner, one of the highest levels on record. Yet, at the same time, 66 percent of Koreans see China's military rise as a threat, and 72 percent say the same about China's economic rise.

The numbers suggest that, despite positive attitudes toward China, South Koreans remain cautious about its consequences for South Korea. Consequently, most South Koreans are hesitant about further upgrading the Korea-China partnership if it comes at the expense of our alliance with the US.

Having said that, South Korean public opinion has a limited bearing on the foreign policy process given the government's continued efforts to upgrade the bilateral relationship.

GT: Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe is taking moves to woo Pyongyang. There is speculation about the possibility of Japan establishing diplomatic ties with North Korea. How will that affect Seoul-Tokyo ties and the Northeast Asia dynamics?

Kim: This is unlikely to affect Seoul-Tokyo ties and broader regional dynamics given that the Sino-US relationship remains most crucial. The North Korea-Japan relationship may be eye-catching, but it is still a minor factor.

Jin: Japan-North Korea rapprochement is helpful to appease Pyongyang, preventing it from going to extremes. Tokyo and Pyongyang have recently moved closer to each other than before as a response to the China-South Korea intimacy, but China doesn't need to feel nervous. It's notable that being both self-centered, Japan and North Korea are impossible to get too close.

GT: The joint communiqué issued by South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Xi reaffirmed both countries' firm opposition to the development of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and expressed support for the stalled Six-Party Talks. What's the significance? 

Jin: It's impossible to resume the Six-Party Talks in the near future given the gap between the US and North Korea on the predications for restarting the talks. It depends on whether both sides want to compromise.

Kim: The US has been very clear and firm on the preconditions for restarting the talks. But South Korea and China can work together to play a bridging role between the US and the North.

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