Seoul’s Warming Ties With China Isolate N Korea

02-Sep-2015 Intellasia | WSJ | 6:00 AM Print This Post

South Korean leader’s meeting this week with her Chinese counterpart underlines pressure on Pyongyang’s traditional alliance with Beijing

The latest sign of shifting alliances in the Koreas will come this week when the South’s leader attends a military parade in Beijing and meets with the Chinese leader, while her counterpart in the North stays at home.

The trip by South Korean President Park Geun-hye comes days after she defused a border crisis with the North and forged a deal for reconciliation talks, including a September 7 meeting to arrange reunions of families divided by the inter-Korean frontier.

But as North’s dictator Kim Jong Un talked about Korean relations being on a path of “reconciliation and trust,” Park’s trip illustrates how much Beijing’s ties with Seoul have warmed in recent years, putting Pyongyang’s traditional alliance with China under strain.

Park will meet Xi on Wednesday and hold separate talks with prime minister Li Keqiang, South Korea’s presidential office said on Monday. Park will also attend a military parade in Tiananmen Square to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II on Thursday, her office said.

Park, whose popularity soared in a survey after her government’s accord with North Korea, decided to attend the parade after “careful consideration,” a government spokesman said. Many Western leaders have shunned the event over concerns China will use it to showcase its expanding military firepower.

North Korea, China’s only military ally, will be represented at the parade by Choe Ryong Hae, an aide to Kim Jong Un. It is unclear whether Choe will hold talks with Messrs Xi or Li. For reasons that North Korea hasn’t explained, Kim has yet to travel anywhere abroad since taking power in late 2011 or host Xi. Park and Xi have met in both Seoul and Beijing.

Economics is part of the reason for the shift in China-Korea ties. China’s trade with South Korea was over 50 times as large as its trade with North Korea in the first six months of this year, according to data from the Korea International Trade Association in Seoul. China is South Korea’s biggest trading partner and South Korea is China’s fourth-largest. Earlier this year, Beijing and Seoul signed a bilateral free-trade deal.

Strategically, some observers see the improving Beijing-Seoul ties as an effort by China to weaken the US’s trilateral regional alliance with South Korea and Japan. South Korean officials dismiss the suggestion of any impact on Seoul’s defense alliance with the US, which has almost 30,000 troops stationed in South Korea to deter North Korean attack.

Instead, South Korean officials say Beijing has become more understanding of Seoul’s position in handling North Korea. In their prior meetings, Xi and Park have discussed Korean reunification, a subject previously considered taboo by China because of the possible implication of North Korean collapse.

US officials have expressed support for closer coordination between China and South Korea over North Korea, an acknowledgment of Beijing’s unique position of influence over North Korea. Experts estimate China takes in around 90 percent of North Korea’s exports, mainly minerals, as well as giving it diplomatic support at the United Nations and in other forums.

While Chinese officials have also become more critical of North Korea in recent years, the question of how much pressure China is willing to apply to North Korea is a frequently debated subject among experts. Most agree Beijing’s primary concern remains avoiding a North Korean collapse. An implosion risks destabilising Chinese northeastern provinces with the potential for hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees over the border into China.

The South Korean government spokesman said Park and Xi would discuss “the situation on the Korean peninsula,” without elaborating. Analysts say that Park’s strategy is to reduce North Korea’s ability to rely on support from China as cover for its aggression with South Korea and others.

“She’s trying pretty hard to smooch away the Chinese from North Korea,” said Robert Kelly, a professor of international relations at Pusan National University in South Korea, of Park. “It’s not going to happen overnight. But if you can cut the China link, North Korea has nowhere left to go.”

China was for decades North Korea’s economic and defense lifeline, a legacy of communist kinship from the Cold War after Chinese troops entered the Korean War in 1950 to fight against South Korean and U.S-led forces.

North Korean state media has reported an unusually heavy international travel schedule for Foreign minister Ri Su Yong to Cuba, Africa and Southeast Asia in recent months that some have interpreted as an attempt to reduce Pyongyang’s dependency on China.

Ultimately, experts say North Korea’s only alternative to China for major support is South Korea, which terminated most economic cooperation in 2010 following the sinking of a navy frigate that killed 46 sailors. South Korea has said it is willing to discuss lifting its sanctions as part of a talks process that was agreed last week to end a military standoff.

Ken Gause, a North Korea expert at CNA Corp., says the thaw in inter-Korean ties will only hold as long as Pyongyang gets what it wants in talks.

“At some point, North Korea may return to a strategy of brinkmanship,” Gause said.


Category: Korea

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