Clowns to the Left, Jokers to the Right: Strategic Options for South Korea

In the age of Kim Jong-Un, Xi Jin Ping and Donald Trump, what are the strategic options that South Korea potentially has to navigate its national security interests into the future?

The Political and Economic Geography of the Korean Peninsula

The political geography of the Korean peninsula has always been complicated. Historically, the peninsula was the route of invasion for rival empires in Northeast Asia, and often regarded as a dagger pointing at the heart of China and Japan; this gave both China and Japan, historical rivals, an abiding interest in being able to at least influence developments on the peninsula, if not outright control it. Since the end of World War 2, the peninsula has been of geopolitical interest to China, Japan, Russia and the US. The “satisficing” solution has been to ensure that no one power is able to dominate the entire peninsula.

The geopolitics of the Korean peninsula has been further complicated with an overlay of ideological conflict since the start of the Cold War, and has persisted into the 21st Century. Ideology ought to dictate that China and North Korea are close. Indeed, while North Korea has been slapped with a number of sanctions since the emergence of its nuclear programme followed by the collapse of the former Soviet Union, China has been the principal source of economic and technological aid for Pyongyang.

The introduction of the nuclear question, in the form of North Korea’s nuclear programme, has added a further layer of complication to the geopolitical equation. How North Korea was able to develop a nuclear programme is a question that has never been answered. Both China and Russia had condemned North Korea in the wake of the latter’s 2013 nuclear test.

Finally, the economic geography of Northeast Asia makes a vibrant relationship with South Korea of great importance to China. South Korea’s largest trading partners are China and the US. In 2015, South Korea exported a total of USD137 billion to China and USD70 billion to the US, while importing USD90 billion and USD44 billion respectively. South Korea’s economy far outstrips that of North Korea. North Korea’s GDP is estimated at USD40 billion; whereas South Korea’s GDP stands at USD1.4 trillion.

Implications on Sino-Korean Diplomatic Relations

China’s relationship with both Korean states has evolved ever since Beijing and Seoul established formal diplomatic relations in August 1992. China’s relationship with North Korea has sometimes been portrayed as being “closer than lips are to teeth.”

However, China has started to act in a more muscular fashion against North Korea: its willingness to support a UN Security Council motion to condemn North Korea for its recent destabilising behaviour; and the possibility that China may freeze oil exports to North Korea if the latter conducts more missile or nuclear tests. The old relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang, sometimes analogised as being “closer than lips to teeth”, may no longer apply. Shen Zihua, a prominent Chinese historian, went so far as to say, “North Korea is China’s latent enemy and South Korea could be China’s friend.”

Nevertheless, the picture is still rather more complicated. China and South Korea are in a mutually beneficial economic relationship; whereas North Korea is dependent on China. At ehe same time, it may still be in China’s interest to tolerate North Korea’s behaviour, since the nightmare scenario for Beijing is surely one where the Korean peninsula is reunited under a pro-US Seoul government. China’s angry reactions to the recent decision to allow THAAD systems to be deployed in South Korea give evidence to this.

South Korea’s Strategic Options

Given the complicated geography of the Korean peninsula, what are the strategic options available to South Korea?

The reality for South Korea is that, as a middle power, it cannot afford to alienate either China or the US, or even Japan for that matter. Militarily, South Korea still depends on the US; South Korea is at best a second-tier arms producer, and its indigenous defence industry has been characterised by Richard Bitzinger as “technonationalism”, fulfilling nationalist ambitions rather than supplying military equipment that is genuinely good. The decision to station US THAAD systems in South Korea is further indication of Seoul’s dependence on the US for its national security.

Furthermore, South Korea cannot afford to alienate China either, for both economic as well as strategic reasons. China is universally acknowledged as absolutely central to the resolution of the North Korea problem, the recent rhetoric from Washington notwithstanding.

Note: a fuller version – edited by The Conversation’s editorial team, is attached here.

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