The US and China disagreed sharply over human rights issues during high-level talks in Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday and Friday. Before the talks, the US secretary of state and secretary of defense had visited South Korea and Japan, and US President Joe Biden had attended a video summit for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the US, Japan, India, and Australia, often simply called the Quad, Hankyoreh reported.
That was how the US tried to create the impression that its allies are moving to counter China before the talks, an effort that China slammed as “interference in China’s internal affairs.” The showdown between the US and China in their public meeting was nastier than expected. All that complicates the position of South Korea, which is wedged between the two powers.
Even as the US and China bickered on sundry issues during the Anchorage talks, they fortunately left room for cooperation on North Korea. Following the talks, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the two sides face a fundamental disagreement on the issues of Hong Kong, Tibet and Taiwan. But he also said that their interests coincide on such issues as Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and climate change.
Blinken also said in a press conference during his visit to South Korea that the US hopes that China will effectively use its influence to persuade North Korea to make progress on denuclearization. That leaves the South Korean government with the task of convincing the US and China, despite their disputes and competition in many areas, to cooperate on North Korea. Seoul needs to prepare a comprehensive and sophisticated diplomatic strategy.
During their visit to Japan and South Korea, US officials stressed North Korean human rights issues under the banner of democracy and values diplomacy. From the perspective of universal values, the necessity and importance of improving the North Korean human rights situation are undeniable.
Recently, the US seems to be trying to deal with North Korean human rights issues in connection with Chinese human rights issues. That raises concerns that the North Korean issue could be lost in the shuffle while the Biden administration is putting pressure on China. In that case, South Korea would probably be unable to restart the Korean Peninsula peace process.
North Korea needs to change its attitude, too. Pyongyang must refrain from military action that could worsen the situation and from harsh criticism that portrays Seoul as entirely responsible for the deterioration of inter-Korean relations.
The US has left no doubt that it means to repair alliance relations damaged by the unilateralism of former president Donald Trump, who focused exclusively on American interests, and to use those relationships as a key tool for curbing China.
The US interests can’t always be the same as the interests of its allies. The US and South Korea need to restore their alliance in a way that benefits both sides. With that in mind, the US must not treat the Korean Peninsula issue as a dependent variable of its China strategy.