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Caving in to Beijing

Nov 01,2017
Diplomatic tension between South Korea and China over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) missile shield seems to be subsiding after both governments announced Tuesday that they had agreed to restore cooperation in all fields. The announcement signals that 16 months of discord over Thaad will end soon.

After 10 days, President Moon Jae-in and Chinese President Xi Jinping will have a summit on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Da Nang, Vietnam, to take a step toward a better relationship between the two countries.

The easing of friction over Thaad is obviously good news because our companies can avoid China’s relentless retaliation and return to their normal business. Expectations of better bilateral cooperation in dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat are a bonus.

Nevertheless, we can hardly applaud the announcement unconditionally, particularly when we take into account what our government promised Beijing in return for better relations.

Diplomacy is basically about give and take. Beijing did not express any apologies for its retaliation against our companies or vow to refrain from doing it again despite massive losses they suffered.

A bigger problem is Seoul’s overly generous promises to Beijing — on paper, mind you — on such sensitive issues as national security.

The government made four hefty promises to China: Thaad is not aimed at China; no additional Thaad equipment will be deployed; South Korea will not join a U.S.-led missile defense system; and tripartite security cooperation among Seoul, Washington and Tokyo will not develop into a military alliance. Except for the first promise — that Thaad is aimed at countering North Korean nuclear missiles — all the rest are controversial.

There could be a need for more Thaad batteries depending on the North’s nuclear sophistication, and South Korea could want to join the U.S. missile defense system. We wonder why our government made such grand promises on such tricky issues even when Moon pledged to develop trilateral security cooperation with the United States and Japan during a visit to Washington in June and at the G-20 Summit in Germany the following month.

The friction over Thaad should be addressed, but the government must not hold our national security hostage. Despite a need to put our relations with China back on track, the government needs to make promises as opaquely as possible.

It could learn a lesson from Beijing, which always answers ambiguously when asked about its relations with Pyongyang.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 1, Page 30