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'3 Nos,' THAAD pit leading presidential candidates against each other

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This article is the third in a series about the 2022 presidential election candidates' campaign pledges. In this article, their pledges for Korea-China relations are examined and compared. ―ED

Aides clarify Lee's and Yoon's visions for Korea-China relations

By Kang Seung-woo

South Korea's relations with China have emerged as a key issue facing the next leader to be elected on March 9 and the two leading presidential candidates have offered sharply contrasting approaches to that issue.

Traditionally, presidential candidates only needed focus on dealing with the United States, an undisputed longtime ally of South Korea. But now, those in the race for the top job in government are being asked to consider how to deal with China, which has emerged as South Korea's largest trading partner.

Currently, Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) are the top two contenders in the March 9 presidential election.

"Amid the U.S.-China confrontation, what kind of policy toward China to adopt is not easy. Previous governments handled China case by case. In other words, South Korea favored the U.S. one time, but it also sided with China the other time, which placed South Korea on the horns of a diplomatic dilemma," said Wi Sung-lac, chairman of the DPK's Pragmatic Foreign Affairs Committee.

In particular, the Moon Jae-in administration as well as the former Park Geun-hye administration had to face pressure to choose between the U.S. and China despite Seoul's pursuit of a "balanced diplomacy."

"What Lee Jae-myung keeps in mind is that we have to make an optimal choice based on national interests, rather than siding with either the U.S. or China. In that sense, Lee thinks that based on its alliance with the U.S., South Korea should develop a strategic partnership with China," Wi added.

On the other hand, Yoon's side, which prioritizes the ROK-U.S. alliance that it claims has been damaged under the Moon administration, is vowing to strengthen strategic cooperation with China on the basis of mutually beneficial respect. The ROK stands for the Republic of Korea, South Korea's official name.

"So far, the incumbent government has shown signs of tilting toward China over the U.S., although pending bilateral issues, including Beijing's ban on South Korean content, have not been completely solved in the wake of the THAAD deployment," said Kim Sung-han, a former vice foreign minister who serves as Yoon's chief foreign policy adviser.


Following South Korea's decision to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in 2016 in order to effectively contain North Korea's evolving missile program, the Chinese government launched an economic retaliation campaign by imposing an unofficial boycott on Korean products and enforcing tourism restrictions.

China strongly opposes the U.S. missile defense shield on Korean soil, claiming that the powerful radar of the system can be used to spy on its military maneuvers and hurt its security interests.

With regard to the THAAD issue, Lee and Yoon remain far apart.

Recently, Yoon pledged to strengthen the extended deterrence provided by the U.S. in favor of additional deployments of THAAD here in proportion to North Korea's growing missile threat. That pledge drew criticism from Lee who likened Yoon to a warmonger and expressed alarm at the enormous price South Korea would have to pay in the event China wages another economic retaliation campaign against Seoul's additional deployment of THAAD.

In addition, Lee claims that there is no need to bring another THAAD battery to the Korean Peninsula to defend Seoul and its surrounding areas against North Korean missiles, because Pyongyang will use low-tier short- and mid-range missiles if it decides to attack the South's capital.

"Lee believes that there is no need to deploy another THAAD unit for the defense of Seoul and its surrounding areas, because the existing PAC-3 system and mid-range surface-to-air missile, the Chungoong, along with the L-SAM, or long-range surface-to-air missile under development, can establish a multilayered missile defense system against North Korea's missiles," Wi said.

However, Kim said the THAAD system was still necessary for the greater Seoul area in the event of North Korea launching long-range missiles at high angles.

"Some say THAAD is not necessary against mid- and short-range missiles, but when they enter the terminal phase, or at an altitude of 60 to 70 kilometers, THAAD can primarily shoot them down and in case of its failure, Patriot missiles can respond to them," Kim said.

It remains to be seen if China will retaliate again, Kim noted.

"Yoon's THAAD plan is to purchase the anti-missile system, not deploy another U.S. battery here, so nobody knows if China will retaliate against the decision," he said.

When South Korea was suffering from Chinese retaliation, some argued that Beijing would back off if South Korea operates the anti-missile defense system instead of the U.S.

"Rather than expressing such uncertainty, we should focus more on North Korea's growing missile threats."

Wi Sung-lac, left, and Kim Sung-han / Korea Times photo
Wi Sung-lac, left, and Kim Sung-han / Korea Times photo

'3 Nos'

In the wake of the THAAD retaliation, the Moon administration agreed with the Chinese government on so-called "Three-Nos" policy in order to assuage China. The policy includes no additional THAAD deployments, no participation in the U.S.-led strategic missile defense system and no trilateral military alliance with the United States and Japan.

Lee maintains that the policy is the right direction to go for economic cooperation with China.

"Considering economic cooperation with China, the policy is proper," Lee said during a TV debate, Feb. 3.

However, Yoon strongly denounced the Three Nos policy, calling it a subservient and pro-China approach to diplomacy.

"The Moon government responded with overly accommodating gestures meant to placate China, declaring the 'Three Nos' policy. These pledges undercut South Korea's sovereign right to protect its people. South Korea should never feel compelled to choose between the United States and China; rather, it must always maintain the principled position that it will not compromise on its core security interests," Yoon said in a Feb. 8 contribution to Foreign Affairs magazine.

In the wake of controversial decisions by judges at the ongoing Beijing Winter Olympics that favored Chinese athletes over Koreans, anti-China sentiment has been rising sharply, prompting political circles, including presidential candidates, to capitalize on the resentment.

However, some warn that politicians need to refrain from exploiting the populist strategy for the presidential election, which could hurt diplomatic ties with China.

Anti-China sentiment

Both Yoon and Lee flatly denied that they were trying to capitalize on anti-China sentiment.

"It is absurd to describe Lee as taking advantage of the sentiment because he is neither anti-China nor pro-China. Rather, he is independent enough to say that we need to act based on the nation's own interests," Wi said.

"He is friendly to China, but if there is something wrong with bilateral relations, he is poised to take firm action to ensure the lives and safety of the people as well as national interests."

Kim also said adopting a policy based on public anger against China was a populist strategy.

"Irrespective of pro- or anti-sentiment toward a country, Yoon is set to act audaciously, while focusing on national security, a matter of sovereignty," Kim said.

Kang Seung-woo

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