|In this June 29, 2019, file photo, U.S. President Donald Trump poses for a photo with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, western Japan. The rising U.S.-China competition is seen as one of the biggest challenge to Korea's diplomacy in the future. AP-Yonhap|
By Do Je-hae
In the last 70 years since the 1950-53 Korean War, Korea has risen to become an economic powerhouse and a key diplomatic player in Northeast Asia.
When asked about the biggest diplomatic challenge faced by Korea, experts contacted by The Korea Times underlined the escalating U.S.-China competition.
"The next 70 years will no doubt be as difficult if not treacherous as the previous 70," said Donald Kirk, a columnist and author on Korean Peninsula issues. "We have to expect the unexpected, including the constant threat of nuclear war. South Korea in the whirlpool of regional rivalries should maintain ties with the major players ― China, the U.S. and Japan ― while working to persuade North Korea to abandon the nuclear option and live in peace for the sake of both Koreas, North and South."
He added, "For South Korea, the best way not only to survive but to flourish is to steer a carefully almost neutral course among the great powers with significant influence over the region. It's imperative to maintain decent relations with China, Korea's largest trading partner, but it would also be a good idea to improve ties with Japan, with which Korea has had intense relationships despite Japanese colonialism and animosity going back centuries. Korea also needs to recognize the need for close ties with the United States not only for defense but also for the sake of long-lasting economic, cultural and social bonds."
At this critical juncture in the geopolitical situation, the problem right now is that Korea's relations with the U.S., China and Japan are not at their best.
The Korea-U.S. alliance remains strong, but the two countries have been unable to resolve differences in primary bilateral issues such as the defense cost-sharing negotiations and the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON). The Moon Jae-in administration, which inherits the tradition of Korea's liberal politics to place high importance on engagement with North Korea, has also shown some discrepancies with Washington on dealing with Pyongyang.
With Japan, unresolved historical issues, such as compensation for victims of wartime forced labor and for the victims of sex slavery, euphemistically referred to as "comfort women," have hampered bilateral relations from moving forward. And Korea-China relations have not fully recovered from the dispute over the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system deployed here, which started a few years ago.
Era of great power rivalry
The U.S.-China rivalry, a relatively new challenge for Korean diplomacy, is viewed as the issue that will most strongly influence Korea's foreign affairs policy in the future. Many Koreans see the competition between the two superpowers as the biggest threat to Korea's national interest, according to a research paper published in August by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
"A powerful China will long be a challenge for its neighbors. South Korea will need a robust and principled middle-power diplomacy to avoid becoming the victim of geopolitical coercion," said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University.
As a key U.S. ally in the Asia-Pacific region, Korea faces the need to strengthen the alliance, but is also trying to improve relations with China, a key trading partner, amid a lingering bilateral dispute over the THAAD deployment in 2017. Experts say it is important for Seoul to develop a strategy on sustaining the Korea-U.S. alliance without antagonizing China.
"Korea needs to adapt to an upcoming era of great power rivalry," said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, associate professor of international relations at King's College London. "Ultimately, however, Korea will have to continue to work on sustaining the ROK-U.S. alliance without openly antagonizing China. I think that Korea has a stronger hand to play here than many realize. The U.S., above all, can't afford to weaken the alliance if it really wants to check on China's rise, since it would lose credibility in the region. Also, without Korea joining initiatives such as the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, these aren't very credible because they look anti-China. As for China, it doesn't really have any credible ally in the region. So antagonizing Korea as it did with the THAAD issue backfires because it makes it look like a bully uninterested in diplomacy. Korea should quietly remind China of this through diplomatic channels."
Pardo, who is also the KF-VUB Korea chair at the Institute for European Studies, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, also advised Korea to cooperate with countries in similar situations.
"In this context, I think that it also makes sense for Korea to continue to try to cooperate with like-minded countries such as the EU [members], Australia or Canada to strengthen multilateralism in areas such as trade, climate change or pandemic resolution," Pardo said. "Korea will also need to boost its bilateral, mini-lateral and multilateral diplomatic, security and trade agreement links with Asian and other countries. With regards to the latter, I think it can't exclude any potential partner. So it makes sense to be part of RCEP, which includes China. But it also makes sense to join Quad-Plus meetings led by the U.S. in non-traditional security issues, as Korea has done in recent months."
Relations with Japan
Japan, a major economic and cultural partner with which Korea shares some unfortunate history, has also presented a persistent diplomatic challenge for Korea. The two countries are at odds over unresolved historical issues, in addition to a trade dispute at the World Trade Organization following Japan's export restrictions last year on materials crucial to Korea's high-tech sector.
Experts say it is important for the two countries to focus on areas in which they can cooperate.
"With fellow democratic U.S. ally Japan, try to cooperate where you can in areas such as defense against North Korea, regional trade liberalization and the like," said Sean King, senior vice president at Park Strategies.
"Broadly speaking, on strategy, Seoul should lean heavily on factors that pull South Korea and Japan together, such as economic ties and hallyu, to help advance constructive relations with Tokyo," said Kyle Ferrier, fellow and director of academic affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI).
"Even in recent years as the relationship has faltered over historical issues, these two areas in particular have proved resilient. Though certain industries certainly suffered due to boycotts in both countries, the overall numbers suggest bilateral trade is still durable. Additionally, more and more Korean cultural content, especially K-pop, is making inroads into Japan, raising the opinion of Korea among Japanese young people as a result. Of course, these are no substitute for difficult, yet necessary discussions about righting past wrongs. However, they can prove to be useful tools to help buttress these arduous talks or help limit the fallout of a future spike in tensions."
Others say it's time for Korea to put future-oriented relations ahead of the past. For this, one of the things Korea should do is to stop using anti-Japanese sentiment for domestic politics.
"South Korea should be more forward-looking, and less focused on historical grievance vis-a-vis Japan, even if those grievances are justified," said Mason Richey, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. "And regardless of which administration is in power, it should refrain from using antagonism with Tokyo to score domestic political points."
The great question hovering over the peninsula is the future of relations between the South and the North, according to some experts. They say it is imperative for South Korea to get along with major powers in order to maximize results in its policies to deal with North Korea and ultimately prepare the right climate for reconciliation and unification.
"Considering how they have evolved since the Korean War was raging seven decades ago, we can hardly be sure whether they are heading toward a second Korean War or an era of prolonged peace and goodwill," Kirk said. "The nuclear threat posed by North Korea could result in horrors far beyond imagination. By getting along with major powers to east and west, however, South Korea has the best chance of maintaining independence and integrity. Ideally, the drive for reconciliation with North Korea will lead to a cooperative, peaceful bond in which the two Koreas can coexist. Reunification may be unlikely, but together they could present a united front against surrounding foreign forces attempting to dominate the peninsula."