Flexible diplomacy matters

2022. 11. 23. 19:36
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South Korea needs to secure room for diplomacy with China and Russia on a more flexible footing than the West even while sharing same values with it.

Wi Sung-lac

The author is a former South Korean representative to the six-party talks and head of the diplomacy and security division of the JoongAng Ilbo’s Reset Korea campaign. Six months since the start of the Yoon Suk-yeol administration in May, diplomacy underwent a big change characterized by toughened policy toward North Korea and reinforcement of the alliance with the United States. Most noticeable is the administration heavily leaning to America. The conservative government aggressively joined the U.S. initiatives on Indo-Pacific strategy, global supply chains, the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea, human rights for Xinjiang Uyghurs and the Ukraine war. Past South Korean administrations were reluctant to tackle such thorny issues. The dramatic shift has continued starting with the Korea-U.S. summit in Seoul shortly after the start of the administration and the recent Korea-U.S. summit in Phnom Penh, not to mention the Korea-U.S.-Japan summit there.

Welcoming such developments, Washington wants Seoul to play a key role in the South-U.S.-Japan cooperation and the U.S.-led checks on China and Russia. Given the North’s endless missile provocations, the U.S. has to deal with it sternly. With the U.S.-China and U.S.-Russia confrontation deepening and with the international order being increasingly split between the U.S. and China and Russia, South Korea — a key U.S. ally and a trade powerhouse with close ties with the West — cannot maintain an ambiguous stance. Such a situation mandates cooperation with America.

But the problem is how to deal with hostile reactions from North Korea, China and Russia if South Korea takes that path. If the South fumbles, it could deepen conflict with those three countries and constrain its diplomatic maneuverability. That offers little room for South Korea to seek denuclearization and a peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula. That’s what happened in the South’s diplomacy during the Cold War. At that time, South Korea was isolated from the three countries on the frontline of an ideological divide. South Korea’s 21st century diplomacy cannot take that path.

North Korea has been seriously ratcheting up the level of missile provocations since the start of the Yoon administration. Some of the missiles fell into our territorial waters. We cannot rule out the possibility of a military clash in the coming months. North Korea could be tempted to conduct its seventh nuclear test to demonstrate its ability to produce tactical nukes.

After South Korea leans to the U.S., China sounds alarms. Beijing would perceive the South Korean government as being the most hostile toward China since the 1992 normalization of ties. China will feel betrayed by the Yoon administration after three decades of “taming the country” through its economic leverage. China will not sit on its hands.

Russia has defined South Korea as an unfriendly country, citing its participation in U.S.-led sanctions. President Vladimir Putin warned that Russia could sever relations with the South over its “weapons supply” to Ukraine. Considering such harsh reactions from North Korea, China and Russia, South Korea must devise effective ways to manage its ties with the three while taking actions in tandem with the international community.

First, South Korea should bolster deterrence on North Korea, but at the same time it must behave with discipline and prevent the vicious cycle of strong actions triggering stronger reactions to find an opportunity for dialogue.

President Yoon Suk-yeol shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Nov. 15, before a summit at a hotel in Bali, Indonesia during the G20 Summit. [YONHAP]

Second, South Korea must find an appropriate distance between the U.S. and China and between China and Russia. To do that, South Korea must determine the coordinate for its relations with them and its future direction. Without fixing them, South Korea could overly lean to one side — or go back and forth. The country must strike a careful balance among them — in other words, picking a coordinate closer to the U.S. yet not far from China and Russia which are geopolitically important. That will help confirm South Korea’s position on international issues and boost its policy consistency and predictability.

South Korea needs to secure room for diplomacy with China and Russia on a more flexible footing than the West even while sharing same values with it. By doing so, South Korea must prevent China and Russia from losing their interest in denuclearizing North Korea and achieving a peaceful unification of the peninsula, a common interest for China and Russia. For example, NATO member countries keep step with one another in checking Russia’s aggressive behavior, but Germany’s Russia policy and France’s Russia policy are not the same. Germany and France take a comparatively flexible approach to Russia. Based on such relations, they communicate with Russia and play a key role if necessary. Likewise, South Korea’s policy toward China and Russia is basically similar to America’s and Japan’s, but they are not exactly the same.

Third, the Yoon administration should be careful not to help North Korea, China and Russia to get united because of its hard-line policy toward North Korea and strong cooperation with the U.S. South Korea must wisely use China and Russia’s opposition to North Korea’s unfettered nuclear development. The government needs to take into account that Russia gives more weight to non-proliferation than China, and has a different interest in the peninsula from China.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

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