Strains in South Korea-China Relations after Recent Events
By Adorno Auguste

Strains in South Korea-China Relations after Recent Events

Dec. 05, 2016  |     |  0 comments

The relations between South Korea and China have experienced a sharp turn, which observers consider as the worst as South Korea edges towards its 2017 elections. Recent events in South Korea have exacerbated tensions between the two countries, leading to analysts believing that China may eventually lose South Korea as a reliable partner. Since the decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system against the threat from North Korea, South Korea-China relations had changed in many ways (Chen, 2016). While it was logical for South Korea to strengthen its security in the wake of increasing threats from North Korea, Chen (2016) reported that China considered the move as detrimental to its national security. Currently, the two countries maintain a state of mutual suspicion, which has prevented effective communication of each country’s real intentions.

The THAAD decision by President Park Geun-Hye created a crucial conflict between China and South Korea centering on the threat from North Korea. Some analysts argued that China should start re-thinking the China-South Korea partnership. For example, Yang Xiyu of the China Institute of International Studies opined that China would have to establish counter-measures against THAAD’s X-band radar, which China believed can spy on its activities (The Korea Times, 2016a). According to other analysts, China might feel cornered by South Korea and the US leading to the emergence of a potential Asian-style Cold War (Chen, 2016). A conservative Park Geun-hye strengthened ties with Japan and the US in terms of security cooperation, for example, in the recent THAAD decision, which had hurt South Korea-China relations.

Post-2017 Election Scenarios

The current situation could change in the future considering the country is headed towards elections in 2017. In the past few months, protests erupted in South Korea as the public and the opposition called for Park to step down or face impeachment. For the fifth weekend, protesters braved the cold temperatures on November 26 demanding the resignation of the president over the corruption scandal in which she was embroiled (The Korean Herald, 2016b). The public approval ratings for the president deteriorated to a record low of 4 percent because of the deepening political crisis (The Korea Herald, 2016a). Conversely, opposition parties were gaining a foothold in the ratings within the country. The opposition was on the forefront in their calls for the resignation or impeachment of Park. The rising popularity of Lee Jae-myung, a mayor in a city close to Seoul, could mark a sharp turn in the events after the elections in 2017. Lee gained favorable ratings as the next presidential candidate who could oust Park (Kim, 2016). External factors, especially pertinent to the relations between South Korea and the US, could also affect the relations between China and South Korea in the future. In case Park loses the elections, the relations between China and South Korea could either improve or deteriorate depending on the foreign policy adopted by the new government.

The populist movement has shown commitment to regime change towards reforms, which Lee promises to bring. In an article published by The Japan Times, Lee vowed to dub Japan as a security foe considering its lack of commitment in the aggression against North Korea (Kim, 2016). Furthermore, Lee pledged that he would strengthen ties with the US in terms of security cooperation. Considering the uncertainty of US foreign policy under Donald Trump, security cooperation with the US could become a challenge for Lee if he becomes the president. Consequently, this could leave China as the only option for cooperation in terms of security in the area. However, the unapologetic rhetoric taken by Lee against conservative politicians meant that he could reform foreign policy to seek alliances elsewhere other than with traditional allies such as China (Jun-suk, 2016). However, the economic interdependence between South Korea and China could reduce tensions and normalize the situation in the future (Chen, 2016). Therefore, the future of the relations remains open to deterioration or improvement depending on the foreign policy stance of the next government.

China’s Reaction to the Scandal

China has expressed strong opposition to the deployment of THAAD as well as the close relations South Korea has been building with Japan and the US. In the wake of the scandal involving the president and a longtime acquaintance of hers, the Chinese media expressed the general opinion of the Chinese authorities. For instance, Xinhua, China’s state-owned news agency, ran an editorial suggesting that authorities in China considered the road ahead for Park as significantly uncertain. Some Chinese officials supported Park’s resignation and called for an in-depth rethinking of the bilateral partnership between the two countries (The Korea Times, 2016a)

The current situation has significant implications for the deployment of THAAD and the ensuing relations between China and North Korea. While South Korea faces a political scandal around Park, China has been revisiting the implications for THAAD deployment. Park’s continued clinging onto power has created havoc in the country’s international relations (Whan-woo, 2016). The recent event on the weekend of November 26 involving over a million demonstrators showed the increasing dissent among the citizens. Although the call for impeachment became louder, the opposition remained uncertain whether the impeachment motion would pass because it was short of 28 votes. However, some members of the ruling Saenuri Party promised to support the impeachment motion, which provided some optimism for the passage of the motion. The impeachment or resignation of President Park would mean that the country would hold elections in 60 days (Kim, 2016).

On November 29, Park announced that she was ready to resign. Although she rejected calls to step down immediately, she left the decision on the timing and means of resignation to the National Assembly (The Korea Times, 2016b). President Park indicated that she would follow the measures drawn by the National Assembly if there is a transition of government. Further, the President indicated that she was ready for the presidential term to be shortened and she would resign once the National Assembly established the procedures to follow. In case of a transition in government, the procedures include the selection of a bipartisan prime minister to head the interim cabinet and an early presidential election. After her statement on her intent to resign through the National Assembly directive, the opposition parties criticized her decision indicating that she was deliberately delaying the parliamentary vote and hanging on to power. Although Park changed her resignation stance, the three main opposition parties were planning to push for her impeachment(The Korea Times, 2016b).

The impeachment of Park could lead to the failure in the deployment of THAAD, as well as possible return of normal relations between China and South Korea.

A recent Chinese Communist Party newspaper suggested that the political crisis facing Park meant that she could not guarantee THAAD deployment (Chang, 2016). Similarly, a Xinhua editorial claimed that the subsequent government would face an obstacle and crisis regarding THAAD deployment, despite the absence of foreseeable changes in its placement policy in the short-run. Therefore, the election of a government emphasizing closer relations with China could affect the THAAD deployment or make it impossible. Currently, most opposition parties oppose the deployment of THAAD. As reported by Xinhua, opposition parties including the Minju Party and the Democratic Party suggested accelerated impeachment as the President had paralyzed the government for months amidst dissent over the THAAD deployment (Chang, 2016). In August, the Chinese Ambassador to South Korea warned that THAAD deployment would strain South Korea-China relations further. Abstractly, the impeachment of Park could lead to the failure in the deployment of THAAD, as well as possible return of normal relations between China and South Korea.

China has expressed opposition to the signing of a military intelligence sharing agreement between South Korea and Japan. China has argued that the signing of the pact will increase tensions with North Korea. The foreign ministry of China spokesman, Geng Shuang, has accused Japan and South Korea of initiating a cold war on the Korean Peninsula (The Japan Times, 2016). The spokesman argued that the current situation in the Korean Peninsula should be handled with sensitivity and any military operation should respect the security concerns of the neighboring countries. However, the US secretary of defense, Ash Carter, has welcomed the pact, indicating that it will strengthen cooperation between the US and its closest allies and enable efficient information sharing. In essence, the accord will facilitate South Korea and Japan in sharing more information on regional security. For instance, the countries will share security information regarding North Korea’s pursuit of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. Although there was opposition in South Korea regarding the strengthening of military relations with Japan, the general security of military information agreement (GSOMIA) was signed on November 22, 2016 (The Japan Times, 2016). The diplomatic ties between Japan and South Korea have improved in recent years since they share security alliances with the US.

Political Parties Divided over THAAD

The political parties have divided opinions regarding the implementation of THAAD. Several prominent leaders within the parties have voiced their opinions or the opinions of their parties demonstrating the fault lines on how South Korea should deal with the increasing threats from North Korea in relation to China and US relations. Some of party leaders have suggested a complete abandonment of THAAD and engagement of North Korea in negotiations while others have suggested the development of nuclear capabilities in the country, against US interests (Jo, 2016).

Several members of the New Frontiers Party (NPF) have continually supported the THAAD decision, but division has continued manifesting in the party. Although North Korea’s latest nuclear test helped in legitimizing the decision to boost security through THAAD, it also culminated to the resurgence of nuclear proliferation debates. Consequently, some party members opined that the US should redeploy the tactical nuclear weapons it withdrew in the 1990s. According to NPF insiders, China contributed to the THAAD decision by failing to contribute to the Six Party Talks (Jo, 2016).

The opposition parties have also shown significant division in opinion, but the common consensus is that the THAAD decision does not favor South Korea’s international relations. The Democratic Party of Korea, which is the largest opposition party, expressed regret regarding the president’s decision to allow the deployment of the THAAD system without consulting with the opposition (Jo, 2016). However, the interim party leader, Kim Jong-in suggested that he was not opposed to the deployment categorically, but opposed the lack of consultation. However, many other party members have been critical of the decision and the deployment itself. For instance, Lee, a figure who has become popular in the Democratic Party, categorically opposed the THAAD decision and its deployment, considering it as going against the people’s will (Kim, 2016). Furthermore, some members of the Democratic Party travelled to China to hold talks with the Chinese authorities and elites regarding the deployment of THAAD, a move that the NPF criticized strongly. Upon taking up the party leadership, Choo Mi-ae declared that the Democratic Party would take a strong stance against THAAD (Jo, 2016). According to the new party leader, THAAD is diplomatically undesirable and militarily useless because it only strengthens the relations between China and North Korea.

The recent scandal and the THAAD decision have exposed the flaws of the parties’ ideologies, especially those of the ruling party.

The People’s Party has also shifted its stance regarding the THAAD decision in recent days. Initially, the People’s Party leader, Ahn Cheol-soo had called for a public referendum on the decision to deploy the THAAD system. Furthermore, the party officials had passionately criticized the Democratic Party for failing to adopt an official stance against THAAD as the People’s Party had done. However, public support for the system increased in the weeks following the announcement about security cooperation resulting in the People’s Party backing down from the explicit rejection of THAAD. However, the party claimed that the THAAD decision was South Korea’s remaining bargaining chip against China. According to the party, South Korea should reconsider THAAD deployment and foster full cooperation with China against North Korea. While the party rejects the THAAD decision, it has also criticized China for failing to contain the nuclear advances in North Korea, which has culminated with the decision to bolster security inside South Korea. The Justice Party, a minor opposition party with six seats in the National Assembly, has a similar opinion regarding THAAD (Jo, 2016).

The parties have different opinions regarding foreign policy. The foreign policy orientations of the parties can be considered as progressive, moderate, or conservative. The Democratic Party and the ruling Saenuri Party have traditionally shown minimal ideological differences. Essentially, the Democratic Party can be considered as moderate in its foreign policy orientation with centrist views with a conservative perception towards international relations and diplomacy. As such, the party still considers the alliance with China as crucial while North Korea remains a threat. However, the recent political events in South Korea have changed the tone with progressive ideologies appearing among some of the party members (Jong-Yeop, 2016).

The People’s Party has a different ideology from the Democratic Party. The party has a largely progressive view on foreign policy. The party supports dialogue and persuasion of North Korea for meaningful change. The Justice Party represents the most liberal politics in the country. Unlike the other opposition parties, the Justice Party considers the lack of progressive rhetoric in the country as an anomaly. In recent months, the Justice Party has declared its shift from progressive politics based on ideology to progressive politics based on reality. Therefore, the party emphasizes the improvement of the country based on effective relations based on dialogue and persuasion (Jong-Yeop, 2016). See Table 1.

Table 1. South Korea Domestic Support for US Alliance (Jong-Yeop, 2016)

Favors persuasion/dialogue for meaningful change

Change in North Korea must precede














Party Support










The political milieu in South Korea is marked with different parties with diverse opinions and ideologies. The recent scandal and the THAAD decision have exposed the flaws of the parties’ ideologies, especially those of the ruling party. However, the rise of progressive rhetoric among party leaders indicates a new start for politics in South Korea. Recent events in South Korea such as the deployment of THAAD and the signing of GSOMIA have exacerbated tensions with China leading to analysts believing that China may eventually lose South Korea as an ally and a reliable partner. Although the main opposition parties have had divided opinion regarding the THAAD decision, the Democratic Party and the People’s Party emphasize negotiations and dialogue with neighboring countries. President Park’s impeachment, resignation or loss in the 2017 general elections could improve relations between South Korea and China, However, the foreign policy adopted by the new government will determine the future relations between South Korea and China.


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