North Korea’s Nuclear Test and ROK-China Relations: A South Korean Perspective
By Sun-Jin Lee

North Korea’s Nuclear Test and ROK-China Relations: A South Korean Perspective

Mar. 23, 2016  |     |  0 comments

Tension has flared up again in Northeast Asia caused by the nuclear test by North Korea on January 6, 2016 and missile launch on February 7, 2016. The nuclear test shocked the international community since it was conducted without being detected by China, the US or South Korea. This was the fourth nuclear test since 2006, defying sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council (UNSC). This has served to underline that North Korea would not stop its nuclear weapons program. And it is worthy to note that such challenges by North Korea would have an impact on bilateral relations between South Korea (ROK) and China.

The ROK government called on the international community to impose strong sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear weapons program and brought the case to the UNSC. However, North Korea turned a deaf ear to the international outcry by launching a missile as planned. China had sent an envoy to Pyongyang a few days prior to the launch. South Korea had high expectations for China’s intervention since China is the chair of the Six-Party Talks formed in 2003 attended by South and North Korea, the US, China, Japan and Russia to end the North Korean nuclear weapons program. Moreover, North Korea’s economic and political dependence on China has deepened due to international sanctions on North Korea since the first nuclear test in 2006. Even though their relations have soured in recent years, they are fellow communist countries.

However, the Chinese envoy returned home empty-handed and the missile was launched on February 7.

South Korea’s Disappointment

A few hours later after the missile launch, the ROK Government announced its plan to start talks with the United States regarding the deployment of a US Army missile defense system (THAAD) on South Korea, which met with strong resistance from China. What prompted the ROK to do it despite the anticipated reaction from China? To me, this is linked to suspicion arising in Korean society and resentment towards China’s double-edged stance.

China’s initial reaction to the nuclear test was very firm and resolute. However, one month passed and the UNSC could not conclude punitive sanctions against North Korea allegedly due to China’s delay tactics. In 2013, when North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, the UNSC adopted its stern resolution within one month, with China’s support. More than that, China’s rhetoric has become double-edged: China not only opposed North Korea’s nuclear test, but it also objected to stern sanctions with an excuse that stern sanctions would not solve the nuclear issue. China further emphasized that all parties concerned should prevent the escalation of the situation. South Koreans began to wonder how serious China’s commitment was to the denuclearization of North Korea.

Wang and Kerry need to hurriedly bury the hatchet with regard to the North Korean nuclear issue by claiming that disputes should not disrupt China-US ties.

The ROK and China have developed a “golden relationship” in recent years in terms of diplomatic, economic, and social exchanges, the best since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1992. President Park Geun-hye has exerted strenuous efforts to strengthen cooperative ties with China, including the area of security as evidenced by President Park’s attendance at the military parade held in Beijing in September last year. She was the only head of state from the US allies in attendance. Moreover, Presidents Park and Xi have met six times in less than three years.

In a time of crisis management, free and swift communication is crucial. After the nuclear test, communication channels were wide open between Korea and the US, at all levels. Telephone discussions between their presidents and foreign ministers were the focus of great attention in the national and international media. In comparison, communication between South Korea and China was infrequent as well as very formal and hollow in substance.

When the issue of THAAD deployment in South Korea reemerged, there was on the part of the Chinese government and news media an outpouring of opposition to THAAD, together with slanderous criticism. Recently I met with Chinese scholars who took a great interest in THAAD. I tried to explain the shift in public perception with regard to THAAD in our society. Until recently, the majority of South Korean people opposed its deployment. Now more than 70 percent of them support its deployment and have demanded that the government do whatever is necessary to enhance the country’s security capability, in particular after the above-mentioned Chinese envoy returned empty-handed from North Korea. It seemed that Chinese scholars were neither interested in the shift in public perception in Korean society, nor how public opinion gains influence in policy-making. We could not engage in a two-way dialogue. I assume that the same pattern of communication may be evident between the two governments.

Lessons Learned

The ROK government took another drastic measure shutting down the Gaeseong Industrial Complex which is located ten kilometers north of the demilitarized zone. The more than 120 South Korean companies located there had employed approximately 53,000 North Korean workers. In addition to the economic loss of over one billion dollars, there is still the possibility of military provocations from the North. However, the government clearly communicated to North Korea and the international community the strong message that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program was not acceptable.

On March 2, the UNSC adopted a resolution containing “unprecedented” harsh sanctions against North Korea. The crucial thing now is implementation, with most elements of implementation resting on the shoulders of China as was the case with the previous UN sanctions. As for the THAAD deployment, US officials have since stepped back from their previous pressing posture.

Foreign Minister Wang of China and Secretary Kerry of the US have met three times in January and February and according to their press interviews, their main topics are: the North Korean nuclear issue, the South China Sea, and Sino-American relations. In particular, it seems that the issue of the greatest concern to Kerry and Wang is Xi Jinping’s attendance at the Nuclear Security Summit which will be held from March 31 to April 1 in Washington, DC, as well as the Obama-Xi meeting on that occasion. Kerry has tried to ensure Xi’s attendance, and his attendance was announced by China last week. Wang, having made a decision on Xi’s attendance at the nuclear conference, could agree easily to the stern sanctions against North Korea at the UNSC.

Wang and Kerry need to hurriedly bury the hatchet with regard to the North Korean nuclear issue by claiming that disputes should not disrupt China-US ties. In view of this process, I feel worried that China and the US will be absorbed in their strategic competition in the future, leaving them to care less about universal norms such as nuclear proliferation. However, my immediate interest is whether a Park-Xi meeting will be held on the occasion of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC.

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