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[Dialogue] ‘More China-S. Korea coordination needed to break US- N. Korea deadlock’

Lee Chang-hyung. Courtesy of The Charhar Institute. Photo: Global Times. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Amid thawing China-South Korea relations, simmering Japan-South Korea tensions and a US-North Korea deadlock over the Korean Peninsula denuclearization, how will the dynamics of Northeast Asia develop? How can China and South Korea work together to explore new ways to break the denuclearization stalemate? Global Times reporter Yu Jincui talked to Lee Chang-hyung, senior research fellow, Center for Security and Strategy, Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, during the Fifth South Korea-China Peace Diplomacy Forum held in Seoul on December 4. The forum was co-hosted by Uijeongbu municipal government and the Beijing-based Charhar Institute.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited South Korea on December 4-5, his first official visit to your country since May 2014, five and a half years ago. How do you see the significance of this visit?

First of all, Wang’s visit is of great importance to restore China-South Korea relations frozen by the deployment of the THAAD system in South Korea. Because of the THAAD deployment, bilateral relations had for quite a long time been in a stalemate. As a matter of fact, China in the past three to four years has built up its military capabilities to cope with the THAAD. So it’s time to restore relations battered by the deployment of the system.

The visit is also expected to pave the way for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anticipated visit to South Korea next year. Xi visited Pyongyang in June. If he doesn’t pay a visit to South Korea during President Moon Jae-in’s term, China-South Korea may further drift apart, which would damage the interests of both countries.

Besides, Wang’s two-day trip is an opportunity for China to expand its influence on issues such as the Korean Peninsula denuclearization and the establishment of a peace mechanism on the peninsula. China needs the cooperation from South Korea if it wants to bring its influence into full play in realizing denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Last but not least, Washington has been luring Seoul to join its Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Moon government is under pressure by domestic conservatives who are urging it to become part of the strategy. In such a context, it’s necessary for China to ensure South Korea doesn’t totally tilt toward the US.

It was reported that the US plans to deploy intermediate-range conventional missiles in Asia after its withdrawal from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty and South Korea is a designed destination. Will South Korea agree to host the weapons?

Speculation has been swirling about the deployment of US intermediate-range conventional missiles in Japan or South Korea after the US withdrawal from the INF treaty. But as far as I know, the US hasn’t raised a deployment requirement to South Korea, nor are there discussions between the two countries. Even if the US demands to deploy the weapons on South Korean soil, South Korea would refuse it.

The THAAD system was deployed to counter North Korea’s missile threats. But if intermediate-range conventional missiles are deployed, the target is not North Korea, but China. Seoul cannot deny this. Should it agree to host the weapon, China-South Korea relations would break down entirely. There is no reason for South Korea to accept the deployment as it’s not intended to defend South Korea.

The latest round of negotiations on sharing the cost of maintaining US troops on the Korean Peninsula failed to produce concrete results due to huge differences between Washington and Seoul. Will South Korea accept to pay the sharp rise? Is the 66-year-old alliance in deep trouble?

Cost-sharing negotiations should be conducted within the framework of the mutually acceptable Special Measures Agreement (SMA) that has been agreed upon by South Korea and the US for the past 28 years. What the Trump administration is asking for — a fivefold increase in Seoul’s sharing of the cost of the upkeep of American troops stationed in South Korea, obviously has gone beyond the framework. Seoul’s share cannot be raised to such a level within the SMA framework. This has surpassed the bottom line that South Korea’s Defense Ministry can accept. The government under the leadership of progressive President Moon will not easily accept the US demand. I think the fivefold increase proposal is a kind of negotiation tactic used by the Trump administration and a compromise will be reached at an appropriate juncture.

South Korea-Japan relations have become strained by rows over trade and history. Where are bilateral relations headed? How will it affect the US alliance system in East Asia?

Both South Korea and Japan have taken a hard-line approach toward each other in the past four to five months, but now public opinion in both countries has shifted to support the extension of the military intelligence-sharing pact between the two countries. Main opposition Liberty Korea Party Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn even started a hunger strike demanding Moon extend the pact. In addition to US pressure, both South Korea and Japan have realized the necessity of defense cooperation in Northeast Asia in the wake of uncertainties on the Korean Peninsula. In a reversal of its earlier decision, South Korea decided to continue the intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan.

Besides, as the Japanese economy has been hit by a sharp decline in the number of South Korean visitors, rising voices within Japan have demanded that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government change its tough stance against South Korea. If Japan stubbornly sticks to its tough line, it’s a hard nut to crack. However, Japan recently proposed to hold a meeting between President Moon and Prime Minister Abe on the sidelines at the China-Japan-South Korea summit to be held in Chengdu, China. This can be regarded as a sign of a turnaround. Even if no solution is reached during the upcoming summit, the two countries will continue to explore ways to make a breakthrough in mending ties.

Can China play a mediating role in the Japan-South Korea spat?

As China insists on the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs, it’s unlikely that it would play an active mediating role.

From China’s perspective, it hopes to prevent Japan and South Korea totally siding with the US and it values South Korea-Japan-China trilateral cooperation to construct a China-centered regional security architecture. China hopes to link the three countries together through cultural and economic cooperation to check US influence. However, South Korea and Japan could hardly act as China expects. Japan has already played an important role in the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the US. Although South Korea hasn’t become part of it, it has not participated in the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative either.

How to break the current stalemate in denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula?

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un once said Pyongyang would “be compelled to find a new way” if the US persists in imposing sanctions and pressure. What’s the “new way?” I believe it doesn’t mean North Korea would return to create tension and confrontation by nuclear threat. North Korea now regards itself a nuclear weapon state. It will strive to shun international sanctions and seek economic development under this status.

The best way to solve the peninsula nuclear issue is to keep North Korea and the US to sit on the negotiating table, though it’s not easy. In the process of reducing differences and establishing mutual trust between the US and North Korea as well as moving to realize the denuclearization goal, South Korea and China play very important roles. A US-North Korea deadlock can only be resolved by South Korea acting as a promoter and China the mediator.

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