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A summit, but not the peak

The Korea-U.S. summit is the first step in a challenging voyage.
July 06,2017
The Korea-U.S. summit is over. Lingering concerns about deployment of the U.S. military’s controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) missile defense system, and the approach to North Korea have been cleared. With the issues settled, can South Korea now pursue its alliance with the United States as planned? Not really. The summit set a general direction, but the specifics need to be discussed further. The devil is in the details and we cannot be easygoing.

A greater concern is the possibility of rocking the diplomatic boat with China. In fact, the biggest news that came out of the summit had to do with U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and sanctions against Chinese banks. While these actions were covered lightly in Korea, they clearly signal that the Trump administration is no longer hoping for China’s good will and plans to pressure China directly.

The news came right before the summit with Korea, which suggests the United States is using the Taiwan issue, on which China is most sensitive, to approach sanctions related to North Korea. Beijing must be interpreting the situation, including the Korea-U.S. summit, in terms of these signals. Like it or not, this is the macro environment affecting Korean diplomacy. Though we may wish to see current issues as bilateral matters, there is a larger international matrix related to Korean Peninsula affairs and we are undoubtedly under its influence.

There were several other signals at the Korea-U.S. summit that may provoke China. The first was on Thaad deployment. China now believes the move is irreversible, and since this is the understanding of the United States, it has agreed not to openly discuss the issue.

Second, U.S. cooperation with South Korea and Japan was highlighted in the joint statement from after the summit. The statement also affirmed cooperation to “uphold the rule-based order in the Asia-Pacific region.” China has been wary of these issues. It is probably the first time Korea has explicitly said it would work to support a “rule-based order,” one of the main objectives of Washington’s China policy.

China must think it has taken several punches from the United States and Korea. At this juncture, the Korea-China summit and Korea-U.S.-Japan summit will be held during the Group of 20 meeting, where the United States is expected to seek trilateral security cooperation and coordinate China and North Korea policy. Friction between the United States and China could grow, and China’s response to the United States and South Korea would be significant. When U.S.-China relations or Korea-China relations become strained, Seoul’s elbow-room on inter-Korean issues becomes smaller. Naturally, it will become harder to coordinate details with the United States as well.

What we need to consider as well is the possibility of North Korea exploiting U.S.-China and South Korea-China friction to make additional provocations. North Korea’s nuclear and missiles tests are already on the agenda, and Pyongyang is seeking the best timing. South Korea’s ability to try out a new North Korea policy could be compromised.

Therefore, prudent actions from Seoul are needed now. There is another factor that South Korea must take into consideration. This is the domestic atmosphere that affects its foreign policy. It is a critical element in Korean diplomacy that is often neglected.

As is very well known, the current administration was established based on the extraordinary will of the people after the previous president was impeached, and it has a strong will to promote new domestic and foreign policy. That’s why people have been calling for progressive policies toward the United States and North Korea. Notably, people have made progressive demands over Thaad deployment, and since Washington did not respond positively, the administration worked to minimize controversy in order not to affect the Korea-U.S. summit.

The people’s will remains strong, and after the successful Korea-U.S. summit, similar calls may continue. However, international circumstances make it harder to accommodate such political demands. South Korea’s challenge is to closely monitor changes in the international environment, and filter and modify domestic forces to suit the international reality and prepare the best possible strategies. Without filtering and modification, the administration may have to pay unnecessary diplomatic costs because of domestic populism.

The Korea-U.S. summit has given accomplishments and challenges to the country. In retrospect, the summit was the first step in a challenging voyage. As we celebrate the initial success, we need to prepare for the journey ahead.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 5, Page 29

*The author, a former Korean ambassador to Russia, is a visiting professor at Seoul National University.

Wi Sung-lac