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     Jul 24, 2010
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South Korea reels as US backpedals
By Peter Lee

China is now in a position to point to aggressive US handling of the Korean issue as justification for a destabilizing arms race - the exact outcome that the stabilizing presence of US forces is intended to forestall - thereby undercutting America's role as the honest-broker hyperpower whose vigilance allows the Asian tigers to concentrate on their export economies instead of their defense budgets.

A piece in China's Global Times summed up the lesson China has decided to draw from the tensions surrounding the ROK-US


naval exercises:
China's dependence on the sea without a navy to match has been a national Achilles' heel for some time.

Without effective military protection, China will have to make significant concessions or even accept humiliation if it comes into a significant conflict of interests with international maritime powers. It is essential to have a strong Chinese navy in order to tackle these difficult issues. Even if a powerful navy cannot solve all the problems, the situation will be much better. [8]
A Global Times editorial took a tough line:
Washington should no longer underestimate Beijing's resolve to challenge US military provocation. As trade and financial ties between the two countries deepen, China will have much more leverage to launch counter measures. Growing nationalistic sentiment in China will also push the authorities to act tougher.

The drill has created wider awareness of maritime security issues. The Chinese people are now more determined than ever to support a bigger and stronger Chinese PLA [People's Liberation Army] Navy to prevent any bullying. [9]
It does not appear that the US State Department and DoD had a Plan B to deal with overt and passionate Chinese hostility toward the ROK/US initiative to exploit the geopolitical opportunity provided by the Cheonan sinking.

The failure to push through a censure resolution at the UN Security Council, the six-party talks dilemma and the prolonged dithering over the naval exercises are indications of a Korea policy with, at best, one wheel in the ditch.

Now the Chinese government has framed the ROK/US response, and not the Cheonan sinking itself, as the culpable act triggering a security crisis, destabilizing the region, and potentially triggering an arms race between China, the ROK and Japan that could potentially marginalize the United States.

It would seem the best US hope is for Kim Jong-il's prompt demise and a quick security crisis on the peninsula to resolve the fate of the DPRK on terms favorable to Washington and Seoul, before China can use its economic, military and diplomatic muscle to ratchet up tensions in East Asia and emerge as the preeminent driver of the regional security debate.

The unpalatable alternative would be to take the cautious approach, backpedaling and mollifying China by reviving the six-party talks.

However, this would be a body blow to the Lee Myung-bak government, which has staked its prestige on a pro-US tilt and the idea that a ROK-US united front could deal with China's manifest displeasure.

Judging from the outcome of the 2+2 talks, the United States has, depending on one's preferred metaphor, reinforced the ROK alliance, decided not to rain on Lee's Korean War anniversary parade for the time being, and/or continued to dig a hole for itself by pursuing a confrontational policy that China will do its best to render unsustainable

The meetings concluded with bold statements affirming South Korea-US ties, with promises that they will be expanded into "Strategic Alliance 2015". The issue of the six-party talks was ignored and sweeping concessions were demanded from the DPRK without offering the prospect of engagement in return:
The ministers urged North Korea to take responsibility for the attack. They also called upon North Korea to refrain from further attacks or hostilities against the ROK and underscored that there would be serious consequences for any such irresponsible behavior.

The ministers urged North Korea to abandon all its nuclear programs and its pursuit of nuclear weapons in a complete and verifiable manner, and to demonstrate its genuine will for denuclearization with concrete actions. They also urged North Korea to improve human rights conditions and living standards for its people in cooperation with the international community. [10]
This is unlikely to be the last word on North Korea and the six-party talks.

Events over the next few months - including the precarious state of the health of Kim Jong-il and his regime and China's appetite for geopolitical hardball - will determine whether Lee's ostentatious fealty is considered adequate compensation for having to deal with an angry and alienated Chinese regime.

For the time being, it looks as if the Obama administration is banking on Kim Jong-Il's prompt demise.

A July 23 editorial in Chosun Ilbo stated:
Assistant US Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell reportedly said in a closed-door meeting on Feb 3 that based on all medical information, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has three years to live ...

... The US government has been focusing on Kim's health, dispatching a medical expert as part of former president Bill Clinton's entourage when he went to North Korea to win the release of two American journalists.

... An operational plan South Korea and the US have prepared in case of an emergency in North Korea focuses on responding to military aggression by the North in order to contain the fallout from the sudden death of Kim Jong-il, a power struggle in the North, public unrest, insurrection, mass defections and other internal crises.
Cynics may be forgiven for concluding that the major significance of North Korea's weapons of mass destruction is that they provide a compelling pretext for US intervention in northern affairs:
The US sent a crack team specializing in weapons of mass destruction to the "Key Resolve" joint military exercise with South Korean troops. The unit did not participate in last year's exercise due to opposition from China, but the US proposed discussions with Chinese government officials about steps to deal with unexpected events in North Korea. The primary US response to such a scenario is focused on dealing with North Korea's nuclear missiles and its biochemical weapons and stabilizing the situation.
The editorial points out the potential disconnect, between South Korea and the US on one side and China on the other, concerning the future of the peninsula:
But the top priority for South Korea is how to turn such a crisis into a chance to achieve reunification. North Korea has become increasingly reliant on China over the last two years. Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie visited North Korea in November last year and said, "I will protect the relationship between China and North Korea, which was forged in blood."

A mutual support pact between the two countries authorizes the military intervention by one if the other is invaded. If the North Korean regime faces a crisis and seeks Beijing's assistance, Chinese troops may get involved in an all-out war. If South Korea remains unprepared for such a scenario, the country may lose another chance for reunification.
Significantly, while the editorial calls for consultations with China, it proposes the UN and not the six-party talks as the appropriate venue for determining North Korea's future:
The US, China, Japan and Russia must initiate strategic discussions about such preparations, and the government must ensure through the UN that its solution in dealing with a North Korean crisis is accepted by the international community. [11]
There are already some indications that the United States is considering tossing South Korea under the bus and resuming the six-party talks, a course of action that the current ROK government can be expected to resist with every fiber of its being.

To a certain extent, the Obama administration has boxed itself into a corner with its high-profile alliance with the ROK. The initiative now appears to lie with China, while the US has to wait, see, and hope for the best.

It will be a remarkable demonstration of the iron law of unintended consequences if the intimate US-ROK alliance, instead of acting as a check on China, merely served to demonstrate the limits of American power and resolve in Asia.

1. The Country Needs True Independence, The Chosun Ilbo, July 19, 2010.
2. Korea, US to Use 'Neutral' Expression for East Sea, The Chosun Ilbo, July 19, 2010.
3. US-Korean Defense Leaders Announce Exercise Invincible Spirit, US Department of Defense, July 20, 2010.
4. A Sea Change in U.S.-China Naval Relations?, The Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2010.
5. China's position dictated by interests, not evidence, The Korea Times, July 20, 2010.
6. Daily Press Briefing, US Department of State, July 12, 2010.
7. Briefing on Secretary Clinton's Upcoming Travel, US Department of State, July 15, 2010.
8. Shifting seas leave Chinese interests awash, Global Times, July 23, 2010.
9. Navy exercise tests China's resilience, Global Times, July 16, 2010.
10. Joint Statement of ROK-US Foreign and Defense Ministers' Meeting, The Korea Times, July 21, 2010.
11. Seoul Needs an Action Plan for Kim Jong-il's Death, The Chosun Ilbo, March 18, 2010.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.

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