By Yun Sun
The year 2022 was not what can be called a stable and peaceful year for the Korean Peninsula. The well-speculated nuclear test by North Korea did not happen, but Pyongyang conducted dozens of missile tests. Most observers still believe that another nuclear test is just a matter of time. Many might see that new nuclear test as potentially the most significant challenge for the peace and stability of the Northeast Asia region. However, for China, the geopolitical consequences of such a provocation will be the true crisis and a real test of China’s policy toward the Korean Peninsula.
Sanctions, COVID-19 and the continued tension/stalemate between the U.S. and North Korea have buried Pyongyang’s hopes for economic opportunities and development. Many observers see the policy of the Biden administration as a new version of “strategic patience,” which keeps the door for diplomacy open without lowering the bar for engagement and increases military deterrence against North Korea while maintaining international pressure. For China, North Korea’s suspension of nuclear tests and missile tests since 2018 was not received with any reciprocal reward from the international community. For instance, China and Russia both called for the U.N. to ease some sanctions but that did not occur.
Nonetheless, in the context of the U.S.-China strategic competition, China’s mentality about North Korea has undergone subtle shifts. For the longest time, the North Korea nuclear issue had been regarded as a potential area of cooperation between the U.S. and China as well as an important area of strategic leverage for Beijing vis-a-vis Washington. The great power competition inevitably increased the space for North Korea to manipulate the great powers so as to improve its own external environment.
Under the circumstances, the negative outlook that China is watching for is the return to “bipolarity” in Northeast Asia, that between a “northern triangle” (China, Russia, and North Korea) and a “southern triangle” (the U.S., Japan, and South Korea). Such a scenario not only solidifies the hostility and adversarial nature of regional dynamics, but also directly undermines China’s desired regional security structure, which includes a relatively neutral Japan, a relatively pro-China South Korea, and an absolutely pro-China North Korea. Such a structure would best serve China’s goal of weakening the U.S.’ security presence and influence in the Western Pacific.
As Brookings Institution research has noted, within this strategy South Korea is the “lynchpin.” Since President Park Guen-hye’s inauguration in 2013, over the past ten years, China has developed high expectations for South Korea’s external alignment choices. South Korea’s support of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and President Park’s attendance at China’s 2015 military parade both demonstrated to China the malleability of Seoul’s preferences.
Although South Korea’s THAAD deployment and Chinese reactions to this event sank bilateral relations, the following Moon Jae-in administration largely followed a balancing diplomacy toward the U.S. and China. Given that South Korea is a U.S. security ally, its willingness to stay neutral between the U.S. and China was of great encouragement to China.
As such, the focus of U.S.-China discord on the Korean Peninsula in past years appears to be on the North Korea nuclear issue. But in reality, the competition for South Korea, especially over influencing and shaping Seoul’s strategic choices, is the most profound and contentious issue.
However, the political tide in South Korea does not appear to be in China’s favor since the 2022 election. The new-in-2022 Yoon Suk Yeol administration has been seen as bringing major uncertainty to Sino-ROK relations. Yoon has vowed to pursue deterrence as the core of his policy toward North Korea ― a reinforcement of the pursuit of security cooperation with the U.S. and a 180-degree shift from the previous Moon administration’s focus on engagement, diplomacy and dialogue with North Korea.
As long as South Korea does not seek engagement and reconciliation with North Korea, China’s diplomatic influence is rendered obsolete and useless, hence depriving China of key leverage vis-a-vis South Korea. In addition, Yoon’s commitment to democratic values in his diplomacy, his aspiration for the Indo-Pacific Strategy, as well as South Korea’s cooperation with the U.S. on supply chain issues, are all touching a nerve for China.
China, so far, has adopted a pacifying policy toward the Yoon administration. Despite its concern over Yoon’s policy, Beijing still arranged for the Xi-Yoon meeting in Bali during the G20 Summit. Many have wondered why China has not played hardball with Seoul yet. It could be because no serious offense like the 2016 THAAD deployment has taken place. It could also be because Yoon is still early in his presidency, while Park was already at the end of hers in 2016. In addition, South Korea’s strong relationship with the U.S. has to make Beijing think twice about whether its punitive measures might push Seoul further into Washington’s arms.
What this means is that any serious provocation by North Korea, especially a nuclear test, will raise questions that are impossible to answer for China’s South Korea policy. If North Korea does conduct another nuclear test, South Korea will undoubtedly demand China take necessary punitive actions and sanctions measures. But in the U.S.-China strategic competition, considering North Korea’s strategic value, China will expectedly fail to meet Seoul’s expectations.
A disappointed South Korea will instead seek to deepen its security ties and deterrence with the U.S. to counter the North Korean threat. The more disappointed Seoul is with Beijing, the stronger it will wish to seek such cooperation with the U.S. The measures South Korea will take to defend its national security will inevitably pose a threat to China’s national security. The history of the 2016 THAAD episode will inevitably repeat itself.
Therefore, for China, the risks and crises on the Korean Peninsula might begin with the North, but will eventually manifest in China’s relationship with South Korea.
About the Author
Yun Sun is a senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center.
Disclaimer: The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members. The APLN’s website is a source of authoritative research and analysis and serves as a platform for debate and discussion among our senior network members, experts and practitioners, as well as the next generation of policymakers, analysts and advocates. Comments and responses can be emailed to email@example.com.
Image: Johnson Space Center, NASA.
This article was published in The Korea Times on 25 January 2023 as part of a dedicated, regular Korea Times column with analysis by APLN members on global issues. You can find the original post here.