Yoon admin caught in US-designed 'Asian war of attrition': South Korean scholar
Published: Jul 01, 2022 07:47 PM
 Yoon Suk-yeol Photo: Xinhua

Yoon Suk-yeol Photo: Xinhua

Editor's Note:
Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea 30 years ago, the two countries have developed into a strategic cooperative partnership and are promoting a high-level relationship. But after taking office this May, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has shown a strong willingness to follow the US in containing China which threatens China-South Korea relations. Global Times (GT) reporter Yan Yuzhu talked to Woo Su-keun (Woo), head of the Institute of East Asian Studies of Korea, about his opinion toward the US involvement in the China-South Korea relations, the future of the partnership between the two East Asian countries, and the security mechanism needed for the Korean Peninsula. 

GT: NATO is gradually increasing its penetration into the Asia-Pacific. Some people think that the US could replicate the Ukraine crisis in Asia. Do you think South Korea, Japan and the island of Taiwan could be the "Ukraine of Asia?"

Woo: The most important thing is that force must never be used. From this point of view, the situation in Ukraine is very regrettable. There is a lot of debate around the causes of the situation in Ukraine, but there is a Chinese saying "There are no waves without wind," and a Korean saying "There is no smoke without fire." I believe that the conflict should be largely attributed to the US strengthening its efforts to contain Russia. What eventually led to the outbreak of the crisis is the US provoking the relationship between Russia and Ukraine by manipulating NATO's eastward expansion behind the scenes in order to maintain its own interests. 

There is no guarantee that such a scenario will not be repeated in Northeast Asia. There are similarities between the regional situation before the Ukraine crisis and the current situation here in Asia. For example, Ukraine ended up being the biggest casualty as a third party caught in the middle of the confrontation between the US as the provocateur and Russia as the defender. In Northeast Asia, the Korean Peninsula, as a third party, is likely to become a victim between the provocateur, the US, and the defender, China.

Thus, it seems that the top leader of South Korea should not be overly biased between China and the US, but should try to carry out balanced diplomacy, improve relations with North Korea, and avoid war in Northeast Asia through China-South Korea cooperation. However, it seems that the Yoon administration is still caught in the pattern of the US-designed "Asian war of attrition," which makes people feel quite anxious. 

GT: US President Joe Biden chose South Korea as his first stop on his first trip to Asia after taking office. South Korea's new President Yoon Suk-yeol said during his campaign that more US THAAD missile deployments were possible. Some people believe that China-South Korea relations will enter a downward spiral, do you agree? To what extent will the relations decline?

Woo: There is a Korean proverb that says, "You can tell what a tree looks like by observing its leaves." What the diplomacy of the Yoon administration will pursue can be seen by the people he has promoted to key positions in the government's diplomatic security. 

Over the past 30 years, I have studied in China, the US, and Japan, lived in many countries, and now I often interact with people from all over the world, making me one of the few experts in South Korea on Northeast Asia. Some of my opinions were commented that "I have never heard of similar views, but the more I listen to them, the more I feel that they are calm and reasonable thoughts."

I have some friends in the field of South Korean diplomacy and security. Many of these friends lamented the personnel arrangement in their field of the Yoon administration, saying, "How can there be so many pro-US people who always follow the old ways?"

I am a Korean. For me, the national interests of South Korea are more important than anything else. For the sake of the national interests of South Korea, it's necessary to build a close relationship with China. South Koreans often say "personnel arrangement is the first of everything." How can South Korea adopt a more balanced and calm diplomacy between China and the US through these pro-US officials?

I think it is very unfortunate that China-South Korea relations will inevitably deteriorate, and it is very worrying that the deterioration will be probably at a rapid pace before the Yoon administration realizes its mistakes. But thankfully, there are many South Korean people who sincerely hope for improvement and further development of China-South Korea relations even when they are tending to be worse now. 

Woo Sukeun Photo: Courtesy of Woo Sukeun

Woo Su-keun Photo: Courtesy of Woo Su-keun

GT: Quad is considered to be a mini-NATO in Asia targeting China. South Korea is also considered a potential member of Quad. What are South Korea's considerations, and will it eventually join this paramilitary alliance against China?

Woo: South Korea is aware that Quad is an anti-China coterie against China. Nevertheless, the Yoon administration has given various reasons in trying to join the mechanism. This demonstrates the distrust of those in power in South Korea toward China and their intention to hold China back, as well as their prejudice and lack of understanding against China.

It can now be said that the key officials in charge of foreign affairs and security in the Yoon administration are trapped in an outdated way of thinking. They are familiar with the "one-sided" foreign policy based on the so-called South Korea-US-Japan trilateral security cooperation during the Cold War, and they have been working in the field of South Korean diplomacy and security for decades based on this perception. 

As the old saying goes, "It is difficult to change one's nature," and their global consciousness is still bound by the "unforgettable America." Moreover, it is difficult to find among these people a proper understanding and appreciation of China today. Their minds are still filled with outdated memories of bad relations between the Korean Peninsula and China, and that China is an untrustworthy country with territorial ambitions for the peninsula. 

"Ignorant and rash people are the most dangerous." They who have just come to power have not only stubborn understanding but also inexhaustible enthusiasm to lead South Korea's diplomacy back to the Cold War pattern according to their own will, regardless of the changes in China and in the world.  

GT: August will soon mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea. These 30 years have witnessed both the economic take-off of each country and the great progress of bilateral relations. Can the economic ties between the two countries basically guarantee the sanity of bilateral relations?

Woo: There is no need to emphasize the importance of the economy in people's lives, but the economy is not everything in life. If our lives are seriously threatened, then we should pay more attention to security than to economy. 

The economic ties between China and South Korea are the same. Based on economy, both countries can realize mutual benefit and a win-win situation. However, if the two countries become confrontational at the national security level, not only could the solid economic ties be affected, but it would also be hard for them to function and fully ensure that both sides remain rational. There were regrettable situations between China and South Korea over the THAAD missile issue; there is no need to say more. 

GT: What breakthroughs have been made in China-South Korea relations in the past decade?

Woo: The bilateral relations have grown by leaps and bounds since the establishment of the diplomatic relationship. Trade has grown rapidly, with China becoming South Korea's largest trading partner and South Korea becoming China's third largest trading partner; social and cultural exchanges have developed rapidly, with each country becoming one of the largest sources of tourists for the other, and moving closer to the other on all fronts. 

But the deployment of THAAD in 2016 has chilled the relations, and both sides felt a strong sense of disappointment toward each other. After Moon Jae-in took office, relations between both countries have slowly begun to improve, although they have not returned to the desired level. However, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic at this critical time has made it difficult for people to travel between the two countries, and the trend of improving bilateral relations has tapered off. Recently under the Yoon administration, the bilateral relations may fall into a rapid deterioration unprecedented since the establishment of diplomatic relations. 

However, there is a saying that "there's no making without breaking." Despite the inevitable downward bilateral relationship, the two countries may take the period under the Yoon administration as an opportunity to once again feel the value and importance of each other, reflect on the impact of the deterioration of relations, and seek together to build a more friendly and close future.

GT: South Korea is an important part of the US plan in terms of the supply chain. The first thing Biden did in South Korea this time was to visit the Samsung chip factory. But it is not in South Korea's interest for the US to control the supply chain. How can South Korea ensure its economic security and independence within the US-South Korea alliance system?

Woo: The US is building its supply chain to defend its own interests, and is creating a sharp confrontation with China as a result. Therefore, South Korea should never make a decision lightly as its active participation in the US supply chain plan could damage its relationship with China. 

China, both in terms of economic and national security, is significant to South Korea. But China is the country that has the most influence over North Korea. It's clear to anyone with common sense that it's not in South Korea's national interest to ignore the relations with China or to be hostile to China. 

Meanwhile, South Korea's new government wants to further strengthen the South Korea-US alliance. But considering the current situation in Northeast Asia, such an idea is very worrying, as the alliance will eventually lead to rivalries and sharper tensions, which are dangerous for South Korea's national security. 

Both sides of an alliance must have a common enemy. Specifically in the South Korea-US alliance, the common enemy is undoubtedly considered to be China. But at the moment, China is not only no enemy to South Korea at all, but a crucial neighbor. The Yoon administration needs to undergo ideological innovation in line with the spirit of the times. The security of the country cannot always rely on the South Korea-US alliance alone. The wisdom of keeping up with the times should be kept in mind to build a new national security system that is the opposite of the Cold War era.  

GT: Former president Moon Jae-in made a lot of efforts to promote reconciliation between South Korea and North Korea. Under the Yoon administration, how do you think the South-North relations will change?

Woo: Yoon's policy toward North Korea is unrealistic. At the same time, the international community and North Korea are taking realistic actions. It's normal to urge North Korea to abandon its own ideas and work together for security and prosperity through greater cooperation with the international community. But what is known is that North Korea will not easily give up as long as the national security threat it faces does not disappear. Thus, the foundation of mutual trust should be built in the process of dialogue with North Korea. It's believed that North Korea will also reduce provocations and promote reconciliation to a certain extent. 

Yoon's unrealistic policies have poured cold water on the efforts of both countries on the peninsula, and the relationship has sharply become tense. The unstable situation in Northeast Asia will lead to social chaos and economic depression in South Korea. As a South Korean, I have no idea what good this will do to the national interests. But the US will be happy about it, and Japan will laugh silently. 

GT: Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the Global Security Initiative in April this year, calling for common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security. What kind of security mechanism do you think is needed on the Korean Peninsula? Is the South Korea-US-Japan security cooperation system still adaptable to today's Korean Peninsula?

Woo: New mechanisms, instead of the trilateral security cooperation, should be adopted since the situations have changed after the Cold War, and China should not be regarded as an enemy by South Korea. 

Of course, for the sake of national security, South Korea has the motivation to make use of the South Korea-US alliance and the trilateral security cooperation, which, however, have a more negative effect on China's national security. Increasing one's own national security should not be done at the same time as compromising that of others. I hope the new government will pay attention to this. 

I believe that South Korea should not blindly engage in strengthening South Korea-US-Japan trilateral security cooperation, but should make efforts to adjust its functions while taking into account the national interests of South Korea today and the possible negative effects of the security cooperation involving the US on Northeast Asia. At the same time, South Korea should further promote its dialogue and cooperation with China in terms of national security.