US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was recently on an extensive tour of Asia to drive home the message that the US is a Pacific power reorienting its focus towards Asia. In this period of uncertainty, Asian powers are likely to hedge their bets to gain maximum leverage from both the US and China who are jostling for geopolitical influence. Given that the ROK has a strategic alliance with the US which limits its options, what are the factors that will enable the ROK to hedge its bets and seek its best interests?
China as catalyst
If the ROK seeks balance and influence in the Asia-Pacific, China’s relevance will be two-fold: ROK-China and DPRK-China.
Given the level of ROK’s engagement with both the US and China, it will be loathe to calibrate one relationship at the expense of another. It already has an FTA with the US, and negotiations on an FTA with China started in 2012. Although China makes a clear distinction between its foreign and economic policies, it is not difficult to imagine how the DPRK would be a central, albeit invisible participant in the bilateral relationship between the ROK and China. This would play out in the ROK-DPRK stand-off and China-DPRK camaraderie. It is also precisely due to this separation between Chinese economic and foreign policies that the ROK will take the job of developing deeper overall ties with China seriously. President Lee Myung-bak asserted that there would be no talks with the North until it renounces its nuclear weapons programme. China, on the other hand, seems keen to prop up a ‘rogue’ regime as its leverage in the Asia-Pacific and as a possible riposte to the American ‘pivot’.
The ROK would be keen to do two things: deepen its economic linkages with China, and cultivate China to exercise its leverage over the DPRK to gain concessions and modify its general intransigence, including in the nuclear area. It must be remembered that nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is the prism through which the US views the US-ROK alliance, seeing it as a global non-proliferation issue. However, notwithstanding the ROK’s aspirations for greater visibility on the global stage, its DPRK problem is in essence, local, and intensely personalized. It therefore encompasses nuclearization, and may be seen as a broader human security problem, derived largely from concerns about the future of the peninsula, their geographical proximity, and hence more regular interaction with defectors and day-to-day problems of the DPRK. Of course the ROK is also banking on the 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea to help deal with any serious provocation from across the DMZ. China could be useful to reach an equitable compromise with the DPRK. In this time of uncertainty, ROK may attempt to hedge its bets but it also means that it will not jeopardize certain guarantees, such as the US-ROK alliance, hoping instead for the co-existence of its options.
For the ROK to be able to obtain reasonable bargains from the DPRK through China, China will need to have considerable sway over DPRK first. It would wish to maintain regime survivability in the DPRK, while also being capable of restraining it.
Kim Jong-il had maintained a carefully calculated distance from China, attempting to bring in Russia as a balancer to moderate China’s influence on the DPRK. Kim Jong-un cannot enjoy this luxury. His status as the supreme leader can only gain international legitimacy by the recognition of his power by China. Interestingly, there has been no high-level interaction between China and the DPRK since Jong-il’s death in December 2011, although the same may not be true of unofficial, back channel contacts. There was also the incident of Chinese fishermen and fishing vessels being captured allegedly on the direction of the North Korean regime in May 2012 – they were returned to China presumably under pressure by Chinese officials.
ROK: Domestic politics
Presidential elections are to be held in December 2012 in the ROK and it makes sense to investigate the political climate within the country. What if, for instance, the ruling Saenuri party is defeated in the elections? Interestingly, even the Saenuri candidate, Park Guen-hye, has suggested that she may adopt a relatively moderate policy in dealing with the DPRK. The six party talks (SPT) have been stalled, and as the Leap Day deal between the US and DPRK showed, the DPRK cannot be held to its word. It is precisely because all negotiations with the DPRK are linked to its nuclearization (in the latest case, to nutritional aid) that there is no progress on other issues. Therefore the new government may seek to delink denuclearization from other issues during negotiations/deliberations so as to not frustrate the agenda, or soften its approach on nuclear issues to encourage smaller steps to be taken, instead of seeking a major breakthrough, as is the current trend.
The attempt to study the complex interplay between multiple actors in a dynamic environment in search of patterns runs the risk of oversimplification. However, China’s role, compounded by the relative uncertainty of what the ROK presidential elections may bring to the government’s policy on North Korea, suggests that the ROK might decide to broaden its options in the evolving tensions between the US and China in the Asia-Pacific.
"Shangri La Dialogue: Southeast Asian Dynamics," 25 June 2012
"Joining the US against China?: The Secret Chapter in Australia’s Defence White Paper," 21 June 2012
"Shangri La Dialogue: Indian Perspectives," 15 June 2012
"Shangri-La Dialogue: Reflections on Leon Panetta’s Address," 15 June 2012
"Antony and Panetta: A Shakespearean Drama?," 12 June 2012