December 4, 2022

By: Shim Jae Hoon

When China established diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992 – despite fierce opposition from neighbor and ally North Korea – it raised expectations that Beijing was ready to play a stabilizing role on the Korean peninsula.

Three decades later, that optimism has been replaced by a sense that Beijing is indeed playing the two parts of Korea against each other as tensions mount, with China refusing to step in and prevent its neighbor from arming itself with nuclear weapons and ICBMs. The Pyongyang regime, placed under global sanctions for violating the United Nations Security Council’s missile and nuclear weapons ban, depends on China for vital support.

With China being criticized for tacitly backing the Kims’ highly dangerous military provocations, Seoul is coming under pressure to review its options with Beijing. South Korea maintains robust economic ties, trading more than US$300 billion annually with each other. Fearful of jeopardizing economic interests, Seoul has maintained a policy of discreet silence and has refused to demand action from China. This has been described by local critics as a policy of diplomatic ambiguity, saying as little as possible about China’s double standards.

But patience is running out as the North continues to launch missiles seemingly despite the US and its partner China. Over the past two months of October and November, North Korea has tested about 20 long- and short-range ballistic missiles, bringing the total to over 50 test launches this year. At least three of them were ICBM classes flying over the Sea of ​​Japan. A short-range missile was dropped near South Korea’s southern maritime border, prompting a government warning to seek shelter.

On Nov. 18, days after the summit talks between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden at the G-20 summit in Bali, the North fired a Hwasong-17 continental ballistic missile at Japan, shocking the Japanese government to issue a warning. A liquid-propelled vehicle-launched rocket appears to have been successfully fired, sparking shock and anger in Japan, with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida declaring that it “absolutely could not be tolerated”. US and Japanese officials said the Hwasong-17 ICBM is capable of hitting all cities in the continental United States.

At previous UN Security Council meetings, China and Russia refused to agree to a resolution condemning the provocation. China’s Ambassador Zhang Jun, defending North Korea’s action, said North Korea’s action was in response to military exercises between the US and South Korea. He demanded that Seoul resume peace talks with the North. In response, the US chief delegate, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said China was making fun of the UN Charter.

For the past five years under the previous center-left government, in a bid for cooperation, Seoul has not only not condemned China’s stance on North Korea, but has also refused to join the global campaign against China’s poor human rights record, prompting internal criticism and overseas from Seoul being overly wary of Beijing in what critics here call a diplomatic ambiguity. At the United Nations, South Korea refused to agree to a resolution examining China’s controversial human rights record.

Seoul’s longstanding policy of ambiguity towards China is now coming under the spotlight in Seoul as new President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office last May, promised a change. Yoon, a conservative leader, is keen to bring Seoul’s previously neutral position on Beijing closer to the US position, not only on China itself but also on Russia.

Seoul’s hardened new stance on Beijing was evident at the recent East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh and the G-20 Summit in Bali. Explaining Seoul’s new Indo-Pacific strategy, Yoon said South Korea is opposed to major powers — namely China and Russia — “forcibly changing the status quo,” citing China’s unilateral maritime claims to the East and South China Seas and Russia’s invasion Of Ukraine. It was the first such detailed account of South Korea’s position toward China and Russia, the two countries with which Seoul has significant trade.

It also followed recent reports – weakly questioned by the Yoon government – that Seoul was exporting 10,000 rounds of artillery shells to the US, which would presumably be shipped to Ukraine. This reverses previous commitments made against Seoul to supply arms to Ukraine.

Yoon phrased these declarations as “a rules-based international order that respects a peaceful Indo-Pacific region.” It spells out South Korea’s new international vision, which coincides with the Biden administration’s policies toward China and Russia. Though unspoken, Seoul apparently included Taiwan in its policy against “forcible change of geographic status.” Her language had such a strong impact that the new political stance at home caused concern among the opposition majority in Parliament.

Contrary to previous precedents, Yoon took up North Korea’s nuclear issue squarely at the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, calling for China’s “active and constructive role” on North Korea’s nuclear and missile challenges. Later, during a 25-minute meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, Yoon urged Chinese intervention and said clearly that Seoul seeks peace based on the value of freedom.

Xi’s response was as timeless as it was unsurprising, reiterating the old line that it was up to two parts of Korea to work out an accord. He reiterated China’s position that two sides on the Korean peninsula should continue talks in the spirit of what he called “multilateralism,” presumably implying China’s opposition to unilateral US domination. Seoul is so estranged from Beijing diplomatically that talks ended in Bali without Yoon promising when he would visit Beijing at Xi’s invitation. Yoon reiterated that it is Xi’s turn to come to Seoul first.

In an earlier three-hour conversation with US President Joe Biden, Xi reiterated claims that China has no control over Kim Jong Un’s behavior, adding that China has “no obligation to dissuade North Korea from another nuclear test.” Biden said he felt China had no control over Kim Jong Un’s behavior but still hinted that Xi could try to prevent Kim from conducting another nuclear test.

But barely a week after the world’s two most powerful leaders spoke out about his behavior, Kim showed his defiance by launching a Hwasong-17 ICBM into the Sea of ​​Japan. US and Japanese military spokesmen said the missile is capable of hitting all targets in continental US cities. In seeming disdain for the US and China, who are taking on his belligerence, North Korea released a photo showing Kim in his iconic flight jacket, sauntering in front of a missile launch pad and holding his teenage daughter’s hand. It seemed to send a message that even if he were dead, in another instance of the family’s dynastic succession, his daughter would take over.

The photo seemed to send another important message: With Putin gripped by the Ukraine war and China preoccupied with cross-strait tensions, he alone was able to taunt the Biden administration with a powerful missile. While Kim’s provocative behavior in East Asia momentarily stole the show, the trilateral alliance between the US, Japan and Korea worked closely together, sending a wave of US B1B strategic bombers and fighter jets from Okinawa into Korean skies. It was part of the rapid response recently agreed between Seoul and Washington to act decisively against the Pyongyang provocations.

The Biden administration has agreed to nuclear secure Seoul if the North launches a nuclear attack on the South. “Any nuclear attack on the South will end the North Korean regime,” US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said.

Against this backdrop, South Korean fighter jets dropped air-to-surface missiles near North Korea’s east coast following Kim’s ICBM launch. It was part of Yoon’s message that Kim’s provocations will not go unanswered from now on.