Speaking at a video conference with Romanian diplomats earlier this week, South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha delivered remarks addressing the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) pressing foreign policy challenges.
Kang’s presentation centered around the unprecedented risks posed by the escalating conflict between China and the United States, stressing that the downwards spiral in relations between the “major powers” has undermined the forces of multilateralism and sharpened tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Echoing the well-trodden argument that the Coronavirus pandemic has reinvigorated unilateralism in international politics, Kang noted that “COVID-19 has exacerbated the divisive trends that undermine multilateral cooperation.
But it has also made clear how interdependent and vulnerable we are and the urgency of multilateral action to overcome it and prepare for the next global health crisis.”
Kang reaffirmed the Moon administration’s commitment to preserving the longstanding post-Korean War security alliance with the United States, but added that “we are also committed to further developing substantial ties in our strategic partnership with China.” Balancing these two relationships has become “a very tough task,” she concluded.
As China continues to stake out a military sphere of influence in the Asia-Pacific region, South Korean policymakers fear that Seoul may soon be confronted with an impossible ultimatum: either abandon the U.S. security alliance, or risk sliding into hostile footing with a militarily ascendant Beijing. By the same token, Washington may leverage the security alliance as a dangle to strongarm South Korea into adopting an aggressively anti-Chinese footing. In the increasingly salient scenario of open conflict between China and the United Staes, both countries wield a wide range of economic and diplomatic tools to punish South Korea for attempting to stay neutral.
It is increasingly apparent to Kang, as it is to a wide swathe of ROK’s security establishment, that South Korea’s efforts to hedge between the U.S. and China are verging on obsolescence. How, then, should South Korea adjust to the looming specter of great-power conflict on the Korean peninsula and the Asia-Pacific region more broadly?
As Kang sees it, “much leverage lies in our geopolitical position and growing capacities.”
Like their Japanese counterparts, South Korean policymakers have no interest in being conscripted by Washington to fill the role of an anti-Chinese platzdarm on the Korean Peninsula; nor do they wish to be sucked in by China’s vast gravitational pull. There is, instead, some early indication Seoul is preparing to chart an independent course.
South Korea has made significant strides on the path to transforming itself into a regional military power, as expressed by Seoul’s ambitious effort to field a relatively large, modernized blue-water navy within the next several decades. The Moon Jae-In administration seeks to accomplish this while preserving the longstanding U.S. security alliance, albeit within a political context that stresses South Korea’s military sovereignty and capacity for power projection. After thirteen years of technical delays and political inertia, South Korea has launched a renewed push to transfer wartime operational control (OPCON) over ROK forces from the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) back to Seoul.
South Korea is slowly staking out a third geopolitical way between America and China— one that envisions the ROK not as a client state helplessly stuck between two feuding great powers, but as a regional actor with the capacity to engage Washington and Beijing without being subsumed by them.
Mark Episkopos is a frequent contributor to The National Interest and serves as a research assistant at the Center for the National Interest. Mark is also a PhD student in History at American University.