Seoul eyes new security options after North Korea’s H-bomb test, China’s inaction

SEOUL–Faced with China’s professed refusal to rein in North Korea following its fourth underground nuclear test of Jan. 6, South Korea is beginning to reexamine its security options.

South Korean President Park Guen-hye

South Korean President Park Guen-hye

As a result of this review, Seoul’s relations with Beijing – until recently so close as to hold six summit-level talks between presidents Xi Jinping and Park Geun-hye in the last three years – inevitably look set to go through a cooling period.

China’s refusal to get involved in stopping Pyongyang’s nuclear gambit is leading Seoul to tighten up its security collaboration with Japan and the US at a time of sharpening tension China faces in the South China Sea. The situation for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un looks no better as his attempt to use nuclear tests to force the US to a conference table is being consistently ignored in Washington.

With neither President Obama nor Secretary of State John Kerry responding in a meaningful way, the US policy of sticking to “strategic patience” seems to continue.

More than a week after the blast, Seoul’s frustration with Beijing’s has grown acute with Park unable to initiate a hotline conversation with Xi to deal with the crisis. This was in stark contrast to urgent telephone consultations she had with US President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. At the lower level, South Korean defense minister Han Min-koo couldn’t reach his counterpart through the newly opened hotline set up at the military level. And foreign minister Yoon Byung-se, much criticized for his pro-Beijing tilt, had to wait one whole day before he was connected to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.

There are other signs that China is staying aloof. When the South Korean foreign ministry organized an urgent briefing for foreign envoys in Seoul, the Chinese ambassador made himself glaring by staying away. That made China the only worthy member of the Six-Party Denuclearisation Process (two Koreas plus China, the US, Japan and Russia) to keep out of the consultation chain. Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov responded to the call on Jan. 13.

A week after the blast, President Park found her much touted China diplomacy facing stern public skepticism, as conservative Chosun Ilbo editorial questioned if anyone in the government would be held responsible for building up high expectation on China. At her New Year news conference on Jan. 13, she was asked if she would fire foreign minister Yoon Byung-se for inflating public expectation on China’s cooperative stance over North Korea.

In a way, she was paying the price of her overly optimistic idea on China relations,  including her controversial attendance at China’s military parade marking the end of World War II last September, she being the only major US ally to do so. Park returned from that trip asserting she had seen eye to eye with Xi on China’s support for peaceful reunification, presumably under Seoul’s initiative.

In the only high-level conversation the two sides have had, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi reiterated his classic position that no interference from China should go beyond maintaining “peace and stability on the Korean peninsula” and using “dialogue” – not pressure — in dissuading Pyongyang on the nuclear program.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying – rejecting US Secretary of State John Kerry’s comment that there should be no business as usual with China’s way of dealing with Pyongyang — claimed Beijing was neither the “origin nor the crux” of Kim Jong-un’s nuclear challenge. It was a strange argument given the fact that China was choosing to ignore Kim’s nuclear program while opposing his nuclear test.

President Park is responding to the threat by ordering resumption of loudspeaker blast along the Demilitarized Zone, silent since last August. This keeps the North highly nervous, as it affects the morale of troops concentrated along the 155-mile demarcation line. The northern side is already showing nervousness, by opening up its own loudspeakers to jam the messages from the south.

At the same time, South Korean troops are under order to reciprocate all forms of military provocations, including artillery or other forms of fire. At the political level, President Park is mulling the possibility of phasing out the Kaesong Industrial Complex, built next to the North Korean city of Kaesong, designed to provide hard currency to the Pyongyang regime. Thousands of North Korean workers there sew apparels for export through South Korean companies, earning US dollars wages for the Kim Jong-un regime. Shuttering that complex could cut an important source of hard currency for the regime.

With the current confrontation leading to escalation of tensions, Seoul’s only option is to tighten its high-profile military collaboration with Japan and the US. Helped by the recent resolution of the “comfort women” issue, Japan and South Korea are already cooperating – with the little-known joint naval exercise near the Arabian Sea, on anti-terrorist missions.

But more exercises against North Korea’s threats are in store in the Korean theater, with the US and South Korea beginning a series of annual exercises starting from March. They are expected to involve participation of heavy military assets such as nuclear-powered carrier USS Ronald Reagan and submarines. This is on top of recent flyovers by B-52 bombers and stealth fighters.

As President Park indicated at the news conference, chances of  deploying US-proposed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or Thaad anti-missile system are never discounted, even against China’s strong opposition. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman asked Seoul to exercise “prudence” on this matter, but Park is under growing pressure within her government to approve Thaad.

In the final analysis, China is making a wrong choice by refusing to use its considerable leverage to force the Kim regime to abandon the nuclear program. Instead of enhancing the gains of Beijing or Pyongyang, Beijing’s stand can only exacerbate the overall security landscape in East Asia. On one side, Beijing is trading its global superpower’s prestige and credibility for short-term advantage of using North Korea as a geopolitical buffer, Kim Han-kwon, a security expert working for the government has recently written. China can only share blame with its rogue client state.

Despite China’s claim that it has little leverage over the Pyongyang regime, it is undeniably a lifeline for its tiny neighbor. China ships around a million tons of crude a year, thus helping to run the regime’s armament industry, and half of it in grants, as well as food supplies. While claiming to worry about the likelihood of North Korean refugees flooding its border in the event of Kim’s collapse, China welcomes 50,000 North Koreans to cross the border and work at Chinese factories as guest workers at low wages of $200 a month.

China is running a big risk by keeping the Pyongyang regime emboldened, analysts here say. With the current confrontation worsening the regional security, South Korea can only turn to Japan and the US to consolidate the trilateral alliance. This trilateral alliance is expected to affirm their combined preparedness at their next meeting on the sidelines of Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, officials here believe.

The next meeting of Nuclear Security Summit will be held in Washington in March.  Abe and Park will be there to talk about North Korea with Obama.

Shim Jae Hoon is a distinguished Korean political analyst and commentator who served as Seoul bureau chief of the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review.

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