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How to avoid a cold - or hot - war in Korea

With Trump, Xi, Abe, Putin and Kim, Seoul is stuck in the middle
Oct 30,2017
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North Korea’s transformation into a de facto nuclear power may be creating a new Cold War between the alliance among South Korea, the United States and Japan and a bloc uniting North Korea, China and Russia.

The timing couldn’t be worse for South Korea. The United States has its most unpredictable and arguably weakest leader in decades in President Donald Trump. Japan - with whom South Korea has difficult ties to say the least - is led by its most politically emboldened prime minister in memory, Shinzo Abe.

On the other side, Chinese President Xi Jinping is being called the strongest leader of that country since Mao Zedong. Russian President Vladimir Putin seems intent on reviving the Soviet Union. And even Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, at the tender age of 33, is showing nerves of steel, testing ever more powerful weapons and nuclear devices, laughing at international sanctions and even brazenly assassinating his own half-brother at an international airport last February, although North Korea denies any involvement.

More and more analysts are worried the Korean Peninsula could even become the site of a proxy war - a hot war, not a cold one - between the worlds’ superpowers unless the situation is contained and contained fast.

“I think it would be fair to call this a crisis,” said David Straub, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute near Seoul and a former Korean affairs director at the U.S. Department of State.

“This a new situation where for the first time ever North Korea is, or will be, in a position to credibly threaten the United States homeland with a nuclear attack. We have a young leader in North Korea who has almost no diplomatic experience and seems to be quite rash and reckless. And in the United States, we have an unprecedented president who has never served in government at all, never served in the military, and is extremely narcissistic, arbitrary and reckless as well.”

“Unlike the confrontational relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, there are simultaneously contradictory aspects of the U.S.-China relationship,” said Kim Joon-hyung, an international studies professor at the Handong Global University. “They have a cooperative relationship, but at the same time they are suspicious of each other. They are neither friend nor enemy.”

Kim warned, however, of labeling the current situation a “new Cold War,” saying it could become a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” But he added, “Some characterize the U.S. and China as being interdependent, so they cannot collide. On the other hand, if China continues to grow and the U.S. declines, they cannot help but clash.”

Kim continued, “We have to find a way to keep the schism from widening, to prevent a confrontation structure from developing on the Korean Peninsula and a proxy war from happening here again.”



A crisis in the making

Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign manager and former chief strategist in the White House, said last week that past presidents left Trump with a “Cuban missile crisis in Korea.”

After the United States discovered that the Soviet Union was secretly sending medium-range ballistic missiles to Cuba in July 1962, a nerve-racking 13 days ensued. Diplomatic communications between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President John F. Kennedy eventually defused the situation and led to a resolution of the crisis. War was averted.

Straub said that President Trump has actually been “perfectly clear” in his North Korea nuclear policy since his inauguration: “That he will not permit North Korea to have a capability of attacking the U.S. homeland with nuclear weapons, and that if necessary he will use a military option to stop that.”

He continued, “To me, the only logical conclusion from that is that Trump means that if North Korea is on the verge of getting that capability, or has just gotten that capability, and he sees no other way, then he will launch a preventive attack on North Korea - not a pre-emptive attack.”

He elaborated, “A pre-emptive attack is where we have strong reason to believe North Korea is going to attack the U.S. or its allies, in which case I think any American president would launch a preemptive attack to minimize the damage.

“I’m talking about a preventive attack in which the president says the simple mere fact of North Korea having such a capability means they can destroy that capability and maybe destroy the country or the regime in the process.”

Straub added that such a preventive attack “would be morally, politically, diplomatically and strategically a disaster. “I don’t think we are going to have a war in the next few months,” said Straub, though there is “every reason to be concerned” about military action. Trump is an “inveterate liar and bluffer,” he said, but “there are times when he has actually done things that he said he would do.”

Straub, who participated in the first three rounds of the six-party talks in Beijing and accompanied former U.S. President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang in 2009 to retrieve two detained American journalists, is no stranger to negotiations with the North.

He rejected the possibility of Washington reaching an agreement with Pyongyang in the near future, “unless North Korea begins to change its basic position on such things as nuclear weapons and missiles.”

China and Russia have called for a “double freeze” to get Pyongyang back to the negotiating table, in which the North suspends its nuclear and missile tests - in effect a freeze of its nuclear weapons program - in exchange for South Korea and the United States halting joint military exercises. This concept has been rejected by Washington and Seoul.

Straub remarked on the return to the Cold War era structure: “The basic cause of this is the behavior of North Korea, China and Russia - not of the United States, South Korea or Japan.”

If China “reaches a tipping point in terms of turning against the North Korean regime, that reduces this feeling of a new Cold War setting,” Straub pointed out. “But if China doesn’t do enough - and doesn’t do it fast enough - and Trump is serious about not allowing North Korea to have that capability, then the relationship between China and the United States can worsen as a result of the North Korea problem.”

Kim of Handong University said Seoul is in the middle of a power struggle between the so-called G-2 countries, the United States and China.

“Structurally, it’s easy for Japan - like the United States, Japan also is competing with China,” he said. “So if it goes along with the United States, it has no problem. But for Korea, economically, we are considerably reliant on China, while in security, we are continuously dependent on the United States. In the case that China-U.S. relations sour, we will need to abandon one or the other.”



Precarious future relations

The economic clout of China has been a boon to South Korea, but also a predicament since the decision to deploy a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system in Korea.

China, Korea’s No. 1 trading partner, has fiercely protested the deployment of the U.S.-led Thaad battery, saying it goes against its security interests and will be used to spy on its own missile activity.

Over the past year, Beijing has taken aggressive economic retaliations against Seoul, blocking South Korean goods and services, entertainment acts and television shows, and shutting down group tours to Korea.

Lotte Mart and Emart decided to leave the Chinese market recently.

According to the Korea Tourism Organization, the overall number of Chinese tourists to Korea between January and September was 3.19 million, a 49.6 percent drop from 6.33 million in the same period last year. The Korean tourism industry is estimated to have suffered a loss of $6.5 billion between March and July, according to a study by Hyundai Research Institute.

China, along with Hong Kong, represents over 30 percent of South Korea’s total trade.



WTO complaint withdrawn

Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy had been preparing to lodge a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) on grounds that China had violated international trade regulations by targeting Korean imports and banning group tours.

But the Korean government announced in September that it would not take China to the WTO over the retaliatory measures, citing the need for cooperation with Beijing to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.

Lee Hyo-young, a professor of international economy and trade studies at the state-run Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security (Ifans), pointed out that even if Seoul filed the case with the WTO and was victorious, it wouldn’t directly benefit Korean companies as that process could take up to three years.

“It only shows that China is doing something wrong under international trade regulations, and has an effect on its reputation, holding symbolic significance,” she said.

But the decision could also be an indicator that Seoul values its relations with Beijing and lead to a potential thaw in the future, she added.

Korea and China announced the extension of a currency swap deal on Oct. 10, following the terms of a previous arrangement, with the contract set at $56 billion for three years.

“There are Chinese scholars who point out that our relationship with China is one that is so deep, geographically and economically, and that there is nothing to be gained from distancing ourselves from China,” said Lee. “But diversification is needed.”

Lee points out that “the most realistic and plausible approach is for negotiations in the Korea-China bilateral free trade agreement to introduce provisions to strengthen protection of Korean companies making investments in China.”

With the Chinese Communist Party’s congress coming to a close, she said a bilateral summit between presidents Moon and Xi should be held and damages incurred by Korean companies discussed. Korea, she said, should emphasize that the Thaad battery could be withdrawn once the North Korean nuclear issue is resolved. She said China has to be convinced it is a vital partner in economics and in achieving peace and stability on the peninsula, and encouraged to “fulfill its role as a G-2 power.”

“Directly confronting China doesn’t appear to work, and taking an approach to pacify and coax China seems to be more effective,” said Lee. This could include offering support for China’s key initiatives such as its One Belt, One Road initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Handong University’s Kim pointed out China has shown indications of a more positive attitude. “In the past, it was black and white, whether Thaad would be deployed or not,” Kim said.

“But now, there is an attempt to find face-saving measures such as calling for Korea to operate it [instead of the U.S.] or creating room for China to monitor it, or enabling some guarantee that it’s only monitoring the North and not China.” Yet, these are measures the United States is not likely to agree to.

“Because China is not officially sanctioning South Korea, it is true there is talk that unofficially they can lower the level of retaliation,” Kim said. But he also cautioned against Seoul expressing false hopes of an improvement or making promises it cannot keep.



How to reach a breakthrough

As long as the United States and China have an ambiguous relationship, the Korean Peninsula may remain a “testing ground” for the two countries, say analysts.

“I don’t think that the U.S. and China will collide in the near future, but it appears they will continue to take an assertive approach against each other and test each other,” Handong’s Kim pointed out. “Because it would be too much of a burden if the two countries test each other directly, that is why the test would take place on the Korean Peninsula.” A key example of this, he pointed out, is the Thaad issue.

Because the countries find it difficult to challenge each other up front and directly, “that is why to warn China, U.S. pressures South Korea, while China in order to test the intention of the United States picks on Korea,” he said. “So Korea continues to suffer damages amid the power struggle between China and the United States.”

Due to the North Korea element, Seoul may have to ultimately join hands with the United States to prioritize security. At the same time, Kim said, while the Korean economy is boosted by its strong semiconductor industry for now, “in a competitive global economy, I don’t know if we have the luxury of giving up China.”

But the South Korea-U.S. alliance can be endangered by a lack of decisiveness, according to Sejong’s Straub.

“Are we an ally, are we not an ally?” he asked. “Do South Koreans think that the United States is only in South Korea for its own selfish interests? If South Koreans feel that way, and if Americans begin to realize that, then that could endanger the U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance.”



‘Counter-steer’ strategy

Straub went on to urge Moon to “counter-steer” on the North Korea issue. “He should be the one who takes the international lead, going around the world and going to heads of governments, and saying, ‘We don’t want war, we don’t want to see an increased risk of war.’”

Straub pointed out the North Koreans’ strategy is to “use the threat of a nuclear attack on the U.S. to try to force the United States from South Korea.”

If South Korea shows it is counter-steering and taking responsibility on denuclearization, Straub said, “That will reduce the feeling in the United States that we have to stop North Korea now: It will reduce the risk of a war, whether a preventive war or an accidental war.”

But in the worst-case scenario - Washington abandoning the alliance - Seoul “will have to go forward with nuclear armament as a last resort,” said Kim, something he and majority of the public opposes for now.

“We are divided between North and South, so what is most tragic is that despite the fact that we are the greatest victims, we have the least means of resolving the situation,” said Kim.

“Ultimately, one of the biggest factors that split the U.S. and China is the North Korean nuclear issue, and the nuclear issue brings us a security crisis, which in turn forces us to pick between the two.”

He continued, “The way for our survival wedged between the U.S. and China is for the North Korea nuclear issue to be resolved, and ultimately for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula. Even if we can’t get to that point, unless inter-Korean relations improve, our situation between U.S.-China relations will continue to remain difficult.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]