Get ready folks for a new premiere of slapstick comedy between Korea and China featuring a new actor, Moon Jae-in, elected South Korea’s president on May 9. A Korean president’s slapstick comedy show is a never-ending story. We already watched a couple of episodes featuring former president Park Geun-hye. One was her attendance at China’s military parade in 2015, triggering questions about her diplomatic stance between Washington and Beijing. The other was her abrupt decision in 2016 to deploy the US’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in the Korean peninsula, only to be slammed by Beijing’s immediate economic sanctions effective to date.
When watching a slapstick comedy, we get a sense that something outrageously funny is soon to happen and it follows, while something appalling also happens unexpectedly. The show is replete with expected and unexpected courses of simple actions, both appalling and outrageous. Many more episodes for this slapstick comedy show are expected to be engendered by the new president of Korea for his obsequious attitude towards China. To his dismay, however, things foreseeable and unforeseeable will occur cyclically if not alternately.
There have already been a plethora of indications during his campaign as well as from his inaugural speech. These indications will materialize largely because he will treat the bilateral relationship of Korea and China only in a one-dimensional context, Korea-China relations per se. He will not be the only one with plenty of precedents available from his predecessors.
Although past Korean presidents claimed their ability to see the bilateral relationship in a multi-dimensional context, no one actually did. Their narrow vision has always left them with a dichotomy of choices between Washington and Beijing. That is why Moon is defined as a pro-China and pro-North Korean progressive leader based on his rhetoric and the political experiences that he accumulated as a secretary to former president Roh Moo-hyun, another progressive leader.
Moon’s political family tree goes as far back as former presidents Kim Dae-jung (1998-2002) and Roh (2003-2007). Under their tutelage, Moon mastered being pro-China and pro-North Korea in his foreign policy outlook and stance. He will utilize his power to serve their interests to perpetuate peace (or, conversely, division) in the Korean peninsula as evidenced in his inaugural speech. To this end, he will be a leader full of an obsequious stance towards China, largely for his conviction that good relations with Beijing will translate into good relations with Pyongyang.
Hence, his political propensity to prioritize relations with Beijing will definitively lead to a loss of balance in Korea’s foreign policy. For instance, in his inaugural address he already declared that he will talk to both Washington and Beijing about THAAD. During his presidential campaign, he asserted his will to renegotiate the THAAD agreement with the United States. His motive is to alleviate the economic sufferings and damages inflicted by China on Korea as a result of that agreement.
What he does not realize is the fact that the agreement is beyond Korea’s control. Since it is a deployment by and for US armed forces, it is out of Korea’s jurisdiction. We have built this illusion over the past two years that THAAD is for our own security purposes, which it is not. It inherently bears some of these strategic implications but not an outright one.
Hence, Moon’s pursuit of renegotiation will not do Korea any good. His country is destined to become a laughing stock to both the United States and China. Washington will start to lose confidence and trust in Korea and will demand to be paid for not only the deployment but also the maintenance of THAAD, in addition to the prospective US demand to increase Korea’s share of alliance expenses beginning in 2019.
Moon is seriously mistaken should he believe that renegotiation with the United States over THAAD will in return appease China. Beijing may lift some of the sanctions. It will, however, easily consider Seoul to be accessible and prone to its pressure. Korea will in the end soon be placed in a rocking chair of China’s; it will be rocked in the chair with two sticks swung over its head by Washington and Beijing, only to get slapped in the forehead and back of the head should it fail to foresee what lies ahead or even if it does foresee what’s coming.
Korea will have to be much smarter in its simultaneous dealing with Beijing and Washington. It is in a complex game of great-power politics. Zero-sum games have no grounds in such a game. It has to have a keen sense of awareness as to what lies ahead and what consequences its decisions will lead to. Renegotiation is less of an answer at this stage but a new direction for foreign policy is requisite to the success of the new government’s diplomacy. Prior communication, for instance, will fix most of Korea’s diplomatic problems should it be utilized in full force, instead of resorting, post-announcement, to mending fences, the outstanding feature of Korea’s diplomatic habits.
Jaewoo Choo, Professor of Chinese Foreign Policy in the Chinese Studies Department at Kyung Hee University, Korea