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Security in Northeast Asia 

Sino-US power transitions, NLL and South Korea’s choice

November 16. 2012

by Wooksik Cheong (Representative of Peace Network)
and translated by Daekwon Son

What is the desirable path that South Korea needs to take in this “G2 era” where the competition for Asian hegemony and cooperation for solving global problem are simultaneously required? In recent, this somewhat worn-out question is once again raised. This is of course mainly because we entered the period of power transitions of the U.S. and China.
 
Nevertheless, there are also more structural and fundamental reasons. Firstly, Korea is now experiencing the fluctuation of hegemony in the Asia region for the first time since its establishment in 1948. In the middle of this fluctuation are the decline of the U.S. which had been a dominant superpower since the Second World War and the emergence of China which finally overcame the ‘Century of Humiliation’.
 
Meanwhile, the South Korea-US relations and Korea-China also have experienced a drastic change. Being anxious over the emergence of China, the U.S. attempted to restructure its Asian alliance aiming at encircling China. As a result, Korea-US relations have also tended to be adjusted to pursue this aim. Yet, as this tendency become obvious, China’s strategic distrust about South Korea will be further intensified, which will make Korea caught in a dilemma between China and the U.S. In addition to its geological proximity, the fact that China is Korea’s largest trading partner whose trade volume is larger than the sum of trade with Japan and the U.S. is also the significant factor which worsens Korea’s strategic dilemma.
 
Another factor which must be pointed out is the concurrence of intensification of Sino-US hegemonic competition and deterioration of inter-Korea relations. This concurrence is not a coincidence. In fact, they are closely interrelated in that South Korea’s anachronistic hawkish policy toward the North and unilateral dependence on Korea-US alliance and North Korea’s nuclear and long-range ballistic missile development program both have intensified the hegemonic competition between the U.S. and China. The intensified competition of the U.S and China, in return, has developed into the competition between the South Korea-US alliance and the Sino-North Korea alliance.
 
It is apparent that this vicious cycle is an unwieldy burden for South Korea. Its creative adaptation to fluctuating order in East Asian region is highly unlikely if South Korea depends on the historical legacy of the Korea-US alliance. On the contrary, as Korea detaches itself from the U.S., the Korea-US alliance will be weakened, making uncertain East Asian future the more unforeseeable. In addition, deterioration of inter-Korea relations will place South Korea in the more difficult situation.
 
Perhaps, in recognition of this, all leading presidency candidates of South Korea talk about “lianmei hezhong (alliance with the U.S and friendship with China) policy”. However, without sound plan and concrete means to implement the plan, their voice will end up with empty political rhetoric.
 
Though presidential candidate Park Geun-hye is recently talking about “Trust” as a keyword for the inter-Korea relations, it is still vague when it comes to the way to build the trust. Especially, her obstinate stance concerning the Northern Limit Line (NLL) is incompatible with the trust-building process that she herself suggests: building trust through “strict implementation of terms of inter-Korean agreements”. This is because the Inter-Korea Basic Agreement stipulates that maritime demarcation line is subject to further discussion. On the other hand, also doubtable is the pledge of candidate Moon Jae-in that he will ease the tension of the western sea while defending NLL. NLL was drawn unilaterally by the United Nations Command after the armistice treaty 1953 and is now regarded as a maritime demarcation line by Seoul whereas Pyongyang has kept on insisting its illegality.
 
The lianmei hezhong policy is double-edged sword as well; it can be highly beneficial, allowing South Korea to take advantage of both the U.S and China, but it can also have adverse impact when mismanaged.
 
South Korea’s stance on the NLL and its strategy about Sino-US relations are closely interrelated. Having three times of tragic skirmishes – the three West Sea Battles, the sinking of Cheonan ship, and Yeonpyeng Island shelling – today the western sea of Korea became not only powder keg of the Korea peninsula, but also the sea of hegemony competition where the U.S. and China are also involved. This implies that the more South Korea takes hawkish stance on the NLL, the less leeway it will have over Sino-US relations as well as inter-Korea relations.
 
Around 20 years ago when the Cold War is about to end, Seoul attempted a Nordpolitik whereas Pyongyang had diplomacy toward South. South Korea forged formal diplomatic tie with China and the Soviet Union, but North Korea failed to normalize relations with the U.S and Japan. Although adoption of Inter-Korea Basic Agreement seemed to help finish the longstanding Cold War era, Seoul has returned to the Cold War politics since 1992 presidential election while Pyongyang has resorted to the nuclear card. As a result, the agreement became nominal without actual value.
 
Inter-Korea Basic Agreement is the agreement that both the ruling and opposition party are willing to respect. Though the agreement covers various issues, what we need to focus today is that fact that it is stipulated in the agreement that the maritime demarcation line is subject to further discussion.
 
Given this fact, the starting point to better inter-Korean relations and the lianmei hezhong policy may lie in Seoul’s flexible policy on the NLL.

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This newsletter is published by Peace Network, a peace movement organization located in Seoul, Korea. Our Movement is dedicated to realizing active peace by promoting anti-war, anti-nuclear, disarmament, and unification of the Korean Peninsula.

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