Did China and South Korea Just Kiss and Make Up?

November 6, 2017 9:45 AM

Minus some details—such as renewed Congressional pressure and administration interest in relisting North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism—the broad contours of US policy for the President’s visit were spelled out in Secretary Mattis' advance tour last week. What has proven more interesting is the diplomatic dance between China and South Korea just as the president lands. Did China and South Korea just kiss and make up or not?

The details—and understandings of the parties—are far from clear, but here is what is in the public record. On October 31, the Six Party Talks representatives of China and South Korea met in Beijing. (Formally, Assistant Foreign Minister and Special Representative of the Chinese Government on Korean Peninsula Affairs Kong Xuanyou and Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Lee Do Hoon). The result was a release of coordinated statements on the relationship that did not exactly say the same thing. The South Korean posted a press release on the “outcome” of the meeting that was pretty anodyne, with a few small twists. These included working together to advance North-South contact and “managing the situation in a stable manner, including by deterring North Korea from launching any further provocations and alleviating tensions.”

But Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying, in her regular press conference, suggested more definitive Chinese understandings on THAAD, and also referred to a somewhat different channel (between Assistant Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou and ROK Second Deputy Director of National Security Nam Gwan-pyo) and other public statements. In particular, she made reference to “three no’s”: that the ROK will not join any regional US anti-missile defense system, that ROK-US-Japan security cooperation would not develop into a tripartite military alliance, and that there would be no further deployment of THAAD batteries and that “the current THAAD deployment in the ROK will not undermine China's strategic security interests.” These three no’s were certainly not in the South Korean press release. But they did appear as statements of policy at an appearance of Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Kyung-wha before the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee only the day before the October 31 meeting (Hankyoreh coverage here).

So is there an agreement on these points or not? And if so, did China also agree to cease and desist with respect to its THAAD-related sanctions against South Korean firms, and particularly Lotte?

With respect to the first point, the answer appears to be “no,” which suggests that China has openly misrepresented the meeting in order to bring a different form of pressure to bear. First, the statement issued by South Korea is pretty clear and makes no mention of these issues. And second, a South Korean “if asked” press guidance states that “the announcement should be interpreted as is. Aside from what we have announced, there is by no means any promise or assurance offered to China in any form whatsoever.” Yet this doesn’t entirely clear up the issue, since it raises the question of what to make about Minister Kang’s comments given that they came just before the kiss-and-make-up meeting. The timing does not look good, and does appear to reflect some quid-pro-quo. Even if these are commitments not to do things that the ROK never intended to do in any case, the issue has already raised uncertainties in Washington. In National Security Advisor McMaster’s briefing for the Asian press, he openly questioned whether South Korea would—or implicitly should—make commitments that would tie its hands on these issues.

To state the obvious, China certainly made no clear commitment to stop using economic instruments, hiding behind euphemisms. To do so would have been to openly admit what everyone knows: that Beijing was in fact bringing economic pressure to bear on South Korea on the issue.

The lack of clarity on this diplomatic episode is in evidence among the invisible college of Korea watchers. On the one hand are those who believe that the Chinese actually blinked on THAAD, perhaps seeing a temporary gain from appearing reasonable as the President comes into town or a longer-term gain of pulling South Korea a few inches its way. Yet there are equally forceful proponents of the view that China is in fact behaving badly. Beijing has effectively tried to lay down new markers, while Seoul is dithering by drawing distinctions between existing policies and commitments that are hard to distinguish given the timing. My belief is that the United States will periodically misread the Moon administration. The new president has swung toward the right on the North Korean issue but maintains a deep commitment to engagement, with a political base to match; coverage of a recent speech outlining his principles can be found here. Think again if you believe that Trump and Moon are really on the same page. Whatever the outcome of the president’s visit, we are still a long way from having the strategies of Seoul, Beijing and Washington clearly aligned.

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