A Delicate Balance: Moon Seeking a New Path in Beijing

The most sensational news to come out of President Moon Jae-in’s state visit to China this week is a reported incident of two South Korean photo journalists getting beat up by Chinese security guards while Moon was attending a trade event in Beijing Thursday morning. Grainy footage of suited men jostling and wrapping hands around each others’ necks was posted online. Seoul has expressed displeasure with the incident, and asked the Chinese government to reprimand those responsible.


The trip was a highly anticipated occasion for mending bruised ties between the two countries after having been at odds for months over South Korea’s decision to deploy THAAD, a U.S. missile system. The continuing difference over that deployment decision was illustrated by the fact that, before Moon traveled to Beijing, the two sides agreed that they wouldn’t release a joint statement or hold a joint press conference after their summit. Then the assault happened, heightening anti-Chinese sentiment in South Korea. 

In a statement following Moon’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping hours after the assault, the Blue House tried to hit all the expected points, saying that the two leaders had reaffirmed shared commitment to peaceful negotiations with North Korea and improving bilateral ties in business and culture.

In spite of the unexpected setback, the Moon administration is determined that the bigger significance of the China trip will not be lost: It constitutes Moon’s first serious attempt at testing out a different approach to diplomacy. In November, Moon stated that he was reviving a diplomatic strategy meant to carve out a unique space for South Korea in Northeast Asia. He said in an interview with Channel News Asia that he would be “pursuing a balanced diplomacy with the U.S. as well as China.”

A key task for South Korean leaders is to find some way of managing ties with China and the U.S., both of whom are important partners, and who are competing for control of East Asia. The objective of this ‘balanced diplomacy’ would be for South Korea to pursue its own interests while building partnerships with larger countries.

Any change in approach is bound to piss off somebody, and not everyone is a fan of getting closer to China.

South Korea’s right-wing still hangs onto bitterness over China’s history of bullying South Korea, including a 17th-century invasion, and is suspicious of anything that might annoy the U.S., South Korea’s main ally. The conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper ran an editorial in advance of Moon’s trip, under the title “South Korea-China summit must not damage South Korea-U.S. alliance.” The editorial accused China of, having now eased its economic retaliation over THAAD, “interfering in South Korea’s sovereignty.” The editorial also warned that rapprochement with China could scuttle South Korea-U.S. consensus on the urgent need to handle the growing North Korea nuclear threat. (And following the beatings of South Korean journalists, the opposition Liberty Korea Party outright called on Moon to abort the summit.)

Those on the left tend to welcome closer ties with China as a way of reducing reliance on the U.S. The left-leaning Kyunghyang newspaper called the summit “an opportunity that must not be missed” to build momentum toward a diplomatic solution to the North Korea issue.


Healing Wounds

South Korea’s presidential office said that Moon’s visit to China was intended to “restore trust and normalize relations” after the THAAD debacle. (South Korea said the system was needed to protect against North Korean missile attacks; China objected on the grounds that the system’s radar could be used to threaten its own national security.)

Part of China’s objection — perhaps the bigger part — was strategic: South Korea agreeing to deploy THAAD with the U.S. indicated Seoul moving away from China and closer to the U.S. as the two great powers compete for dominance in the Asia-Pacific region. The lesson of THAAD for the Moon administration is that China is willing to use its economic clout to influence South Korea’s diplomatic and military policies. (Then again, so is the U.S., given Donald Trump’s demands on South Korea to renegotiate the FTA deal between the two countries.)

But China and South Korea have too many shared economic interests to let ties ossify. On Oct. 31 they released the statement meant to stop the bleeding, pledging to restore relations. As part of that deal, South Korea agreed to “three no’s”: no additional THAAD deployments, no participation in U.S.-led missile defense networks, no trilateral alliance with the U.S. and Japan.

Still, many South Korean media outlets noted that the welcome thrown by Beijing seemed less than whole-hearted. Besides the assault, the Chinese government sent only a vice-ministerial official to greet Moon at the airport. (A minister-rank official welcomed former president Park Geun-hye when she visited.) There was little in the way of private functions between the two leaders, only official meetings (though they did watch a K-pop performance together one evening, it’s been reported).

Contrast that to the effort made by Seoul to underscore the importance of the visit: South Korean celebrities known for their appeal to the Chinese joined Moon’s entourage; the president and his wife made a big show of having breakfast at a restaurant in Beijing dubbed a “humble establishment” and used a Chinese mobile payment system to settle the bill; and Moon traveled Saturday to a far western city of Chongqing, meeting a regional leader known to be a Xi confidant. 

Diplomatic Playback

In a 2005 speech, then-President Roh Moo-hyun announced plans for South Korea to act as a “balancer,” not just for the Korean peninsula, but for Northeast Asia regionally. According to this vision, South Korea would play a more assertive role in international affairs, maintaining productive relations with China, Japan, Russia and North Korea, while maintaining its alliance with the U.S.

Korea has spent much of its history being pulled in different directions by bigger powers, and there is a school of thought, more commonly found on the political left, that the country’s own interests were compromised by being unduly deferential to outside players. Roh’s balancer theory posited that South Korea could more effectively pursue its own national interests, and be a force for regional peace, if it were to reduce reliance on the U.S. and take a more independent approach to diplomacy.

The vision articulated by Moon is somewhat less ambitious than this, and is aimed primarily at balancing South Korea’s military reliance on the U.S. with the importance of maintaining strong economic ties with China.

A key facet of Roh’s vision for South Korea was building ties with North Korea. Roh and others on the left argued that shared ethnic, historical and linguistic ties gave South Korea a significant edge in ultimately convincing Pyongyang to move away from nuclear armament and join the international community.

Roh advocated a range of commercial and cultural integration projects that he hoped would build trust between the two Koreas, including expanded rail and road links, joint fishing rights and cross-border exchanges of athletes and students. (The most concrete symbol of that effort is the now-shuttered Kaesong Industrial Complex.) But any amicable feelings on the Korean Peninsula evaporated under hardline policies pursued by the George W. Bush administration, and then due to the North’s first-ever nuclear experiment in 2006.

Since then, North Korea continued to thumb its nose at South Korea and the U.S. by building its nuclear capabilities, leaving Moon with little room to push for rapprochement. (In his Channel News Asia interview, when asked about his willingness to meet with North Korea, Moon echoed the standard U.S. position: “Only when North Korea stops the nuclear and missile threats first and displays the will to communicate will talks be possible.”)


It’s the Economy

At the top of Moon’s agenda while in Beijing, after reiterating the standard positions on North Korea, was smoothing the ground for South Korean companies to tap into this big market. China is by far South Korea’s number-one export destination, and Beijing’s strangling of trade out of displeasure with the THAAD decision caused an estimated $7.5 billion in losses to South Korean firms. Particularly hard hit by the THAAD retaliation was the South Korean tourism industry, which had come to rely on visitors from China. The Chinese government enacted an effective ban on group tours to South Korea, though they are reportedly restarting.

Bilateral trade had blossomed in the years leading up to the THAAD deployment, culminating in the signing of a free trade agreement in 2015. South Korean companies, who are generally more advanced technologically than their China counterparts, have found natural ways to ride the wave of China’s economic ascent, supplying petroleum products, semiconductors and machinery.

In Beijing, Moon and Xi signed several memorandums of understanding, vowing to increase cooperation including the services sector, healthcare and energy.

Moon is walking a tightrope. Whether or not this ‘balance’ will be tenable going forward depends on how sensitive China is regarding South Korean military cooperation with the U.S. on the one hand, and on how sensitive the U.S. is regarding South Korea’s relationship with China on the other. While Seoul is not likely to make a break with Washington given continuing displays of belligerence by the North, South Korea’s very public rejection of additional THAAD deployment, an American-led missile defense and trilateral alliance with the U.S. and Japan runs counter to Washington’s vision for the region.  

Ironically, both proponents and critics of closer ties with China say that only their position will guarantee South Korea’s sovereignty. Conservatives argue that by agreeing to the three no’s Seoul is ceding its own autonomy; those on the left say that a balanced approach will ease dependence on the U.S. and actually strengthen South Korea’s ability to choose its own way.

Either way, to quote one Korea observer, South Korea is trapped between rock and a hard place — two competing great powers that both demand appeasement to the effect of angering the other.