The Forgotten North Korea Crisis: How China Is Pushing Back against South Korea Over THAAD

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Command of the Strategic Force of the Korean People's Army (KPA) in an unknown location in North Korea in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 15, 2017.​

China’s economic regime encouraging South Korea to abandon THAAD is as extensive as it is problematic.

The lynchpin of the still-nascent Trump administration’s strategy on North Korea—aside from increasingly hyperbolic rhetoric emanating from the likes of even near-statesman such as Jim Mattis—has been to pressure China, Pyongyang’s principle benefactor going on seventy years. But evidence that that approach is lacking abounds, not least because the president put the Western world on edge last week about the very real possibility of imminent hellfire. Despite a cordial April Mar-a-Lago summit between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, China is largely ignoring U.S. directives and prerogatives in the Asia Pacific region, if its economic pressure—some would say bullying—campaign on South Korea to abandon the THAAD missile defense shield is any evidence. The administration seems to agree, after a brief period of detente. The last week has seen nationalist-populist elements in the White House drawing up fresh investigations of China’s economic practices.

The National Interest spoke at length with U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Chairman Carolyn Bartholomew not long after the commission released its “China’s Response to U.S.-South Korean Missile Defense System Deployment and its Implications” report, which is potentially groundbreaking in the genre. The report sheds light on a little-covered facet of the Korean issue. “Economic coercion” is the favored term of the U.S. government to describe what Beijing is doing to the South. K-Pop, Korean pop, is a cultural behemoth in Asia, and among immigrant groups in Europe and North America. But its status is threatened in potentially its largest market, China, over the THAAD issue. The broad swath of the swiftly emerging South Korean entertainment interesting is impacted:

“Shortly after the THAAD announcement, several events featuring South Korean pop music (K-pop) and actors were suspended or cancelled without any explanation. China Central Television (CCTV), a state-owned TV channel, reported that the government’s broadcast regulator had banned the airing of South Korean TV shows, another popular cultural export, effective September 2016. A performance by a South Korean soprano was cancelled in January 2017. South Korean video games were also caught in the dragnet: in March 2017, Chinese regulators stopped granting South Korean online video games regulatory approvals, essentially banning their sale in China,” the report reads.

Also, with that as a backdrop—and the perception, at least, of continuing U.S. domestic instability—players like Russia could pounce; much is to be determined, but the U.S. risks embarrassment in the region. Russia “sees opportunity with the U.S. that is otherwise occupied,” Bartholomew tells me. “How is the United States otherwise occupied? . . . I don’t know what you’re referring to,” I press. “It’s no secret that people in the rest of the world are watching and alarmed . . . and those who do not look favorably on the U.S. role and the U.S. value system are poised to take advantage of the turmoil,” said Bartholomew, a lawyer and former aide to senior Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi and Bill Richardson, the former UN ambassador, congressman, governor and presidential candidate.

Below are key portions of our conversation on China’s efforts vis-à-vis South Korea, lightly edited for context.

Mills: Any color you’d like to lend to the report, in general?

Bartholomew: Our commission is established by Congress to advise Congress on issues relating to the U.S.-China economic and security relationship. This report grew out of some requests from some people on the Hill for a better understanding of what China’s arguments were against THAAD.

Mills: Is there any concern at all that China could be successful [in its pressure campaign], particularly with this president [Moon Jae-in], a political liberal in the South Korean context? That Moon, given certain circumstances, could pressured to either downscale or to completely come out disapproving of THAAD? Or no?

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