South Korea seems to have decided that the time has come to make a choice, because it quickly becomes too difficult to sit on two chairs. As the visit of Moon Jae-in (previously he was one of the most pro-Chinese and anti-American politicians in the South Korean establishment) to Washington has shown, this choice in Seoul will most likely be made in favour of Washington, writes Valdai Club expert Andrei Lankov.
From May 19 to 22, 2021, South Korean President Moon Jae-in was on a visit to Washington, where he held talks with Joe Biden. This summit was South Korean president’s first trip abroad since the beginning of the pandemic.
It must be said that Moon Jae-in didn’t just travel to Washington to meet the new US president in person: there was a need to discuss issues on which there are real or potential contradictions between Seoul and Washington.
For Moon Jae-in, the most important task was to achieve a change in the American position on the inter-Korean relations issue. Moon Jae-in and his Democratic Party are traditionally supporters of a softer policy towards Pyongyang; they advocate the development of contacts and exchanges with Seoul’s restless northern neighbour. Most importantly, they are ready to generously finance all these contacts and exchanges from the South Korean budget.
However, due to the policies that have been put in place since 2017, economic cooperation projects with the North cannot be implemented without direct approval from the United States. The current sanctions regime, approved by the UN Security Council in 2016-2017, prohibits almost any form of economic interaction with North Korea. Cooperation between the North and the South (with the exception of purely humanitarian projects) will only become possible if the UN Security Council either relaxes the sanctions as such, or decides to make an exception for some specific projects, which in this case must be made exempt from sanctions by a special decision. The United States is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and enjoys a veto, so neither of these two options can be implemented without direct American consent.
The American president also had questions for his South Korean counterpart. At present, the main task for the United States in East Asia is to contain China. Of course, Washington would like South Korea to participate in efforts to isolate and weaken China. In addition, the United States is interested in maximally “decoupling” the American and Chinese economies, and reducing its dependence on Chinese supplies in strategically important areas. Here they would also like to get help from Seoul, since in some areas South Korean technology is more advanced than American tech.
Judging by the communiqué and other documents from the summit, both sides managed to implement a considerable proportion of their plans.
On the one hand, the American side made concessions in matters of relations between North and South Korea. At first glance, it may even seem that the text of the joint communiqué contains serious contradictions. On the one hand, it says that “President Biden also expresses his support for inter-Korean dialogue, engagement, and cooperation”. On the other hand, the same communiqué calls for “the full implementation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions” — that is, resolutions that establish a sanctions regime, which is an insurmountable obstacle to the development of inter-Korean cooperation.
This contradiction can be interpreted in different ways, but the prevailing opinion among observers is that during the talks in Washington, the South Korean and American leaders reached a compromise. On the one hand, it was decided that the tough sanctions regime will be preserved for the time being. On the other hand, “as an exception”, the United States will agree that some individual projects of inter-Korean cooperation will be officially removed from the sanctions by a relevant decision of the Security Council. It is even possible that behind closed doors, the parties agreed on which projects Seoul will receive American approval for, and therefore, they will be formally removed from the sanctions by the relative decisions of the Security Council.
Much attention in the South Korean media was caused by the fact that the joint US-South Korean communiqué contains a direct reference to the Singapore Declaration. This declaration was adopted in July 2018 following a meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, the first ever US-North Korean summit. Frankly speaking, the Singapore Declaration is a rather vague document, but its mention signals that the Biden administration, in principle, intends to continue the line of negotiations with North Korea which President Trump began during his tenure.
On the other hand, the South Korean president also made significant concessions — from the point of view of the global alignment of forces, these concessions appear to be much more significant.
The main issue here is, of course, its attitude towards China. South Korea, in principle, is not eager to take part in the crusade against Beijing that Washington is currently pursuing. Geographically Seoul is much closer to Beijing than to Washington, so tensions with China will be far more painful for South Korea than for countries that are located far from the East Asian giant. An even more important circumstance is that approximately 25-27% of all South Korean trade turnover is trade with China, which has long been the main foreign trade partner of Seoul.
Nevertheless, the South Korean side made unexpectedly serious concessions on the issue of China. The word “China” itself did not appear in the communiqué, and there is no mention of some particularly painful issues for China — for example, it does not say anything about the Hong Kong problem or the situation in Xinjiang. Nevertheless, the text of the communiqué contains a number of statements that unequivocally express support for American positions on China-related issues.
The text explicitly states the “importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”, as well as “freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea and beyond”. It is clear that in the first case, support for Taiwan in its aggravated confrontation with China is expressed, and in the second case, the Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea are condemned.
The communiqué takes more than one potshot at China. For example, it says that both parties support the “transparent and independent evaluation and analysis of the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak”. These words clearly contain a hint that the official Chinese position on the origin of coronavirus is not reliable (the Western media now touts the idea that the pandemic began with the leak of viruses from the Chinese virology laboratory in Wuhan).
Another concession from Seoul to Washington, also partly related to China, was the statement about the “fundamental importance” of trilateral US-Japan-South Korean cooperation. The first years of Moon Jae-in’s presidency were marked by frequent and violent conflicts between Japan and South Korea, which were usually initiated by Seoul (mainly for internal political reasons — anti-Japanese sentiment is very strong in South Korea).
The decision of South Korean firms (acting on the initiative of the authorities) to invest about $40 billion in the development of the American semiconductor industry is also partly related to the Chinese problem. It boils down to the creation of a US-based production cycle that will use advanced South Korean technologies and will reduce the US dependence on the supply of microchips from abroad, primarily from China.
It is clear that the numerous (the above list is far from complete) attacks on China would inevitably cause irritation in Beijing. Shortly after the visit, the official representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese ambassador to South Korea criticised the position taken by Seoul (which is somewhat unusual).
It should be kept in mind that Moon Jae-in is the leader of the left-nationalist camp, and many of his associates have long been considered politicians who were critical toward the United States. Moon’s opponents from the right-wing conservative opposition, on the contrary, always were consistently pro-American, and often portrayed Moon Jae-in as almost a Chinese agent of influence. These assertions were, of course, far from the truth, but Moon Jae-in and his entourage really had sympathies for Beijing until some point.
Moon Jae-in’s visit to Washington was another manifestation of the changes taking place in East Asia.
Now there is a situation in which South Korea seems to have decided that the time has come to make a choice, because it quickly becomes too difficult to sit on two chairs. As the visit of Moon Jae-in (previously he was one of the most pro-Chinese and anti-American politicians in the South Korean establishment) to Washington has shown, this choice in Seoul will most likely be made in favour of Washington. But this choice is forced and does not cause much enthusiasm in Korea. However, both the South Korean political class and most of the South Korean public do not seem to see an alternative to it.