For China, an economic backlash against South Korea is unlikely to provide any solution to the protracted crisis between the two Koreas.
By Avantika Deb
The already tangled security dynamics of the Korean peninsula is heading for further complication owing to the latest developments in the region. With North Korea conducting successive missile tests on one hand, and South Korea electing a new government after considerable domestic instability on the other, the regional situation is indeed in a state of flux. The United States, a long-term ally of South Korea, recently installed a powerful anti-missile Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in Seongju county of South Korea in reaction to North Korea’s repeated provocations. This has generated a great amount of regional anxiety with China, which views THAAD as a threat to its own military operations, especially in the South China Sea. In a move devised to signal its vociferous protests, China has shut down several South Korean companies operating within its territory and test-fired a missile in the Bohai Sea in the aftermath of the THAAD installation. However, the root of the problem can be traced to North Korea’s rogue nature and disregard for international norms and agreements. China must realise that defensive mechanisms like the deployment of THAAD are due to North Korea’s aggressive nuclear posture. It would benefit all parties if China could re-strategise its policy vis-à-vis the Korean peninsula, and attempt to utilise its leverage over North Korea instead of lashing out against South Korea.
The THAAD system is designed to detect and destroy short, medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles. It carries no warhead, but utilises the kinetic energy of the impact to destroy an incoming missile. THAAD was deployed hurriedly in the Republic of Korea (RoK) just weeks before the May 2017 Presidential elections, which saw the victory of Democratic Party candidate Mr. Moon Jae-in. Mr. Moon’s predecessor, conservative leader Park Guen-hye, had agreed upon the deployment. The United States has claimed that THAAD would protect South Korea from the erratic missile tests and any potential attack orchestrated by North Korea.
Missiles have been test-fired by DPRK multiple times this year with most of them falling into the Sea of Japan. In February, a land-based KN-15 missile was launched and it travelled up to 310 miles. This was a significant achievement for North Korea since it was the first solid-fueled missile fired from a mobile launcher. In early March, they launched five medium-range Scud-type missiles, three of which landed in the waters of the Japanese economic exclusion zone. This was followed by a few tests that failed. One of North Korea’s most successful tests was the May test of an intermediate range ballistic missile. It covered a horizontal distance of more than 700 km and detected by the THAAD deployment in South Korea. This test-launch signals the North’s remarkable advancement in developing an intercontinental ballistic missile, such as capable re-entry technology and better engine performance, which experts claim can target the United States.
The transformed domestic political reality of RoK needs an assessment before analysing the overall regional situation. The victory of liberal candidate Moon Jae-in marks the end of almost a decade of conservative rule in the country. Liberal governments enjoyed power between 1998 and 2008 during which inter-Korean relations were quite stable. South Korea’s “Sunshine Policy“ towards the North had enabled greater diplomatic and economic cooperation between the two countries and earned the then-President Kim Dae-jung a Nobel Peace Prize. Mr. Moon Jae-in had in fact served as the chief of staff to Kim’s successor President Roh Moo-hyun who carried the policy forward. President Moon’s willingness to restart negotiations, dubbed “Sunshine Policy 2.0” with North Korea is a two-track engagement with the DPRK — seeking dialogue on one hand, and maintaining pressure and sanctions on the other. His stance has led the critics, especially the older generation, to label him as an apologist for the North. As opposed to the conservative government, this administration also seeks to realign South Korea’s relationship with the United States. Mr. Moon has called for less dependency on the US when it comes to deciding on issues related to regional and national security.
Immediately after the installation of THAAD in South Korea, the Chinese government, expectedly, raised a brouhaha. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang called for an immediate halt to the deployment while warning that China is “ready to take necessary measures” to protect its interests. Beijing fears that Chinese territory will also fall under the surveillance of the THAAD thus enabling the US to spy on China’ss military activities including those on the South China Sea. Most of all, Beijing is anxious that the THAAD system would neutralise its strategic advantage in the region and provide a major advantage to the United States in case of a future conflict. Quick to contradict China, US officials have pointed out that THAAD is not an offensive, but rather a defensive weapon, and will not affect China’s or Russia’s strategic deterrent. Nevertheless, to reaffirm its stand as the regional hegemon, China tested a new type of missile aimed at the waters surrounding the Korean peninsula, seen as a retaliatory reaction to the deployment. In a rare high profile announcement, the defense ministry claimed that the People’s Liberation Army Rocket (Missile) Force has successfully tested a guided missile in the Bohai Sea in order to increase their operational capability and “effectively respond to threats.” In addition to this, China has lashed out by shutting down South Korean conglomerate Lotte’s retail facilities in China. The implicit reason behind this reaction is the fact that Lotte has provided land for facilitating the installation of THAAD. China has also retaliated against South Korean firms in entertainment and travel, and blocked online trade in South Korean goods. Chinese tourists have reduced in alarming numbers on the South Korean resort island Jeju. Bank of Korea’s director general of the research department, Mr. Chang Min, has predicted that South Korea’s economic growth will suffer due to China’s boycott.
However, an economic backlash against South Korea is unlikely to provide any solution to the protracted crisis between the two Koreas. There are some factors, China needs to consider while formulating its Korea policy. Instead of fretting against the United States and sanctioning South Korea, China could use its influence over North Korea and bring them to the negotiating table. China, being one of the dominant actors in the Asia Pacific, needs to ensure regional stability and prevent a military escalation for its own benefit, if not for the overall economic and developmental progress of the region.
China controls eighty percent of all foreign trade with North Korea, and is arguably its most important ally. Beijing has played a very cautious game vis-à-vis Pyongyang. It has opposed harsh international sanctions against the DPRK and backed the Kim Jong-un regime on one hand, but also supported some of the United Nation Security Council sanctions to show that it is keeping in line with international consensus and regulations.
However, China would never push the sanctions far enough as it apprehends that a collapse of the regime may lead to a unification of the peninsula under the US-backed South Korean government. Thus, China has refrained from exerting too much pressure on the North, and is instead upping the ante against the South by cutting down on trade and indulging in muscle flexing. However, curbing the North Korean nuclear threat should be a priority for all players, including the Chinese. It might be argued that Beijing stands to gain from a belligerent DPRK, as it would ensure a counter to the US presence in the region. However, this is an unsustainable balancing act as North Korea is extremely unpredictable and unreliable.
China has shown signs of weariness regarding North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. It had initiated the Six Party Talks in 2003, which ultimately lost its way after the DPRK walked out in 2009. The talks had commenced with the aim of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program through negotiations involving China, the United States, North Korea, South Korea, Japan and Russia. The talks suffered frequent disruption over the years by North Korea’s provocations and unwarranted missile tests. North Korea even refused to abide by its own statements. In 2012, the DPRK announced that it would suspend nuclear tests in exchange for food aid from the US, but test-fired a long-range missile soon after. However, China has not done enough in terms of controlling North Korea’s conduct. It needs to avoid and address the vicious cycle and deal with Pyongyang in a systematic manner. As long as North Korea keeps testing its missiles and escalating nuclear tensions, the US and its allies will continue to undertake deterrent actions like installing the THAAD. Thus, it would be in China’s best interest to enable a dialogue between the relevant parties, and impose, when necessary, substantial diplomatic and economic sanctions on Pyongyang to induce a change in behaviour. With President Moon at the helm in South Korea, the time is ideal to initiate a dialogue. Whether North Korea will respond to Chinese pressure remains uncertain. China has recently blocked coal imports from North Korea to protest against its missile tests. It obliges Beijing to sustain these sanctions, if it desires a stable Korean Peninsula.