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With an Eye on China, South Korea Shifts Focus to US

A visitor uses a smartphone to film at the unification observatory in Paju, South Korea, July 7, 2022.
A visitor uses a smartphone to film at the unification observatory in Paju, South Korea, July 7, 2022.

After the foreign ministers of South Korea and China met on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting in Bali, Indonesia, each government issued a statement hoping for bilateral cooperation.

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said his government expects the ties between the two countries “to develop based on universal values and norms.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Beijing will work with Seoul to develop their ties based on “mutual respect.”

Their meeting followed South Korea’s first participation at a NATO summit as a partner nation. At the June 29-30 summit, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, emphasized that because NATO was “established on the foundation of liberal democracy and the rule of law,” he hoped “a cooperative relationship between NATO and the Indo-Pacific will become a cornerstone of a coalition defending universal values.” He did not name China.

Against this backdrop, experts say Seoul is cautiously edging away from Beijing, its largest trading partner, as the world’s major powers sort themselves into liberal democratic and autocratic camps. Yoon speaks regularly in support of a rules-based international order and alignment with the U.S. and U.S.-led coalitions.

Seoul’s cautious shift

Ellen Kim, deputy director of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said “By attending the NATO summit, the Yoon government sent a clear message of alignment with NATO members and other partners that South Korea opposes any challenges to universal values and the rules-based international order.”

Andrew Yeo, the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at the Brookings Institution, said, “Yoon has definitely pivoted toward the U.S. and U.S. allies and partners.” He continued, saying “Yoon still wants to maintain positive diplomatic relations with China, but at the same time, he also expects Beijing to respect South Korean sovereignty and national interests.”

NATO, formed as a Europe-Atlantic security alliance, pointed out in its 2022 Strategic Concept issued during the summit that China is a “challenge” to its interests, security and values because of what the document called its “coercive policies.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian responded at a June 30 news conference, saying NATO had “once again wrongly defined China” and “smeared” its foreign policy. The Western alliance has wrongly “pointed fingers” at Beijing’s “normal military posture” Zhao said.

Beijing cautious over Seoul

Despite its harsh criticism of NATO, experts said China is taking care not to antagonize South Korea just as Seoul does not want to upset its neighbor. South Korea is one of China’s top five trading partners, according to Beijing numbers and China is South Korea’s top trading partner, according to SantanderTrade.

Evans Revere, a former acting assistant secretary of East Asian and Pacific Affairs for the U.S. State Department during the George W. Bush administration, said China “has predictably not reacted well to being cited as a long-term challenge by NATO.” But, he said, it “has been careful not to criticize Seoul directly thus far.”

He continued, saying China “has few friends in the East Asia region other than North Korea, and thus China is taking care to avoid alienating” South Korea. That dynamic offers “important leverage which I presume Seoul will exploit carefully in the coming months,” he said.

According to Gary Samore, former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction during the Obama administration, China wants “to avoid a fight” with Seoul. “The more China acts aggressively, the more danger there is that the U.S. will succeed in building institutions” that include South Korea but not China, he said.

In May, Yoon joined President Joe Biden’s newly created Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which Wang criticized as a U.S. effort to put “other countries in a frame of its own standards and rules.”

Bruce Klingner, senior fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, said the Yoon government has “made clear that a strengthened alliance with the United States will form the foundation for Seoul’s outreach to Pyongyang, Tokyo and Beijing.”

North Korea factor

Samore also said that South Korea’s approach to North Korea will be a big factor coloring the complex ties between Beijing and Seoul as the Yoon administration places its stamp on government policy.

From Seoul’s standpoint, Samore said, “to the extent China is willing to help with North Korea to prevent provocations,” Seoul will “see value in continuing [a] relationship with China and avoiding actions the Chinese would consider to be unfriendly to China’s interest.”

He said such actions would include associating itself “more closely with the Quad,” an informal group comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. It is formally known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

North Korea has launched 18 weapons tests this year and is widely believed to have finished its preparations for conducting a nuclear test.

During his meeting with Wang in Bali, Park asked for Beijing to play a “constructive role” in prodding North Korea to stop provocations immediately and resume dialogue, according to the South Korean Foreign Ministry.

VOA's Korean Service contacted the North Korean mission to the U.N. and Chinese embassy in Washington and asked for their response to Seoul's support for the rules-based international order and its’ shift toward the U.S. but did not receive replies.

Asia security alliances

Shortly after his inauguration, Yoon participated virtually in the Quad summit held in Tokyo on May 24. Beijing views the Quad as a direct strategy to contain its military expansion in the Indo-Pacific.

According to Sukjoon Yoon, a retired South Korean Navy captain who is now a senior research fellow at the Seoul-based Korea Institute for Military Affairs, Seoul “may initiate some gesture of articulating security cooperation [with] Australia, New Zealand, [and] Japan” as well as with the Quad.

He continued, however, to say that because China as well as Russia yield considerable influence on North Korea, the two nations could respond to greater South Korean cooperation with U.S.-led coalitions by encouraging Pyongyang to stage “military reactions.”

Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation, said Yoon’s vocal support for “shared values” is “code language for countering China.” But, he said, neither that nor his participation in the NATO summit is likely to trigger economic retaliation from Beijing.

However, if South Korea were to join the Quad and participate in military drills “explicitly” aimed at China, that “would be a problem,” he said.

In 2017, Beijing closed China-based South Korean retail shops and banned tourism to South Korea after Seoul installed the U.S. anti-missile system THAAD to protect against a potential North Korean attack.