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2017-11-20 16:24
Western media outlets use wrong lens on THAAD row


Two old British-influenced English-language publications recently put South Korea, figuratively, in the doghouse to explain how it surrendered to Chinese pressure over its deployment of the anti-missile U.S. Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery on its soil.


The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post dubbed it as China’s victory without firing a shot, while the Economist called it a successful case of Beijing’s “doghouse” diplomacy. In a twist, both apparently referred to Korea’s anti-Japanese sentiment, dating back to its colonial occupation and before, as a factor that enabled Korea to prefer Beijing over Tokyo.

First, the term sounds as ill placed as it is wrong. Maybe, the two reflect a colonial tint in the tradition of a simplistic zero-sum game of a bygone era.

True, there is a big difference in the respective scale of economies but it is not just Korea that has suffered from Beijing-imposed boycotts but China has suffered as well. Beijing’s one-man dictatorial structure of governance may have masked much of its damage. More specifically, the disappearance of Chinese tourists from Seoul streets and harassment of Lotte were government-orchestrated but drops in Hyundai Motor sales were attributable to Chinese products’ rise in value for money as well.

Seoul’s move was political for a different reason ― resolution of the North Korean problem.

China is seen as being pivotal but punching below its weight in supporting President Moon Jae-in’s goal of separating nuclear arms from the North and introducing lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula. That has left Moon backing the risky U.S. policy of maximum pressure tactics. He has been trying to bring China on board. It was no secret that Beijing was sending Seoul the message that once China’s 19th Party Congress was over, the stronger Xi Jinping could try and put their bilateral relationship back on track. An olive branch was offered from Beijing, although it looked awkward after Seoul uttered three nos ― no to an additional THAAD battery, no to a U.S.-led Missile Defense (MD) initiative and no to a Korea-U.S.-Japan military alliance. But it was worth checking the deal from Beijing’s end. Has Seoul decided to send the THAAD battery back to the U.S.? Has it ever said it wants to be part of the U.S.’s global missile shield? Has it ever wanted to form a trilateral alliance?

The three nos should be seen not as an act of kowtowing to China but confirmation of Korea’s basic principles of diplomacy. Xi got kudos but not much else.

Finally, the Economist and the South China Morning Post commonly touched on the Japan factor. The latter argued that Moon’s left-leaning government has a greater problem with Japan than with China. Wrong. It was the mother, more exactly father, of all liberal presidents in Korea ― Kim Dae-jung ― who made a real earnest effort to reconcile with Japan. But Korea’s real problem is with the U.S. ― about gaining a sense of independence with its bigger ally and growing into the role of balancer in the region. China and Japan remain on the sidelines. 

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