Beijing-Seoul reset doesn’t have to hurt US-South Korea ties - An interview with CWP Alumni Patricia Kim

Thursday, Nov 16, 2017

Analyst Patricia M. Kim says that China and South Korea may have variant interpretations of the burying of differences over THAAD, however

Is Beijing, fresh from settling a dispute with Seoul over a US anti-missile shield, trying to pull South Korea away from Washington despite President Donald Trump’s recent visit? And do President Xi Jinping’s latest attempts to mend ties with both Koreas signal more effective Chinese efforts to resolve the North Korea nuclear crisis while pushing back US strategy in the region?

Patricia M. Kim is a Stanton Nuclear Fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington who specializes in Chinese foreign policy and Korean security issues. She says the real scenario is more nuanced and complex than that portrayed by the media and some policy sources.

A resolution of differences over the deployment of a US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system, Kim says, doesn’t necessarily undercut US-South Korea ties or Washington’s regional strategy, as some argue. At the same time, she sees differing perceptions about what was agreed to on resolving the THAAD issue stirring possible problems for Seoul with Beijing down the line. She also says Seoul views China, more than Japan, as a potential strategic threat over the long-term.

Kim spoke with Asia Times about recent Chinese overtures to South Korea and what they mean for the balance of power in Asia.

What was South Korea’s thinking in ending the THAAD dispute with China?

The Moon administration sought a reset of relations with China for two reasons. First, Seoul clearly understands that Beijing is a critical player in resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis, and that it’s essential to have the ability to engage in high-level dialogue with Beijing on the issue. Since President Moon’s election in May, the strained relations between the two states have prohibited close contact, so resetting the relationship was a priority for Moon.

South Koreans harbor a lingering fear that President Xi and President Trump might cut a deal on North Korea without consulting Seoul first. Improving relations with China, therefore, was seen as a necessary step to ensure Seoul can express its views and engage in consultations with both great powers, and that it can have a seat at the table in any discussion on how the region should approach the crisis on the Korean peninsula.

The second reason why the Moon administration sought a reset was because of the need to tackle China’s economic retaliation. Various South Korean industries, ranging from tourism to entertainment, suffered heavily from Chinese economic retaliation (over THAAD) and the Moon administration faced lots of pressure from his domestic audience to quickly resolve the THAAD dispute to alleviate the economic pressure.