South Korea and the U.S. apparently plan to stage a joint naval exercise in the East and West Seas at the end of July. The main theater of operation is likely to be the East Sea, and that is where the U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington is to be deployed. Originally, the two allies planned to hold the drill in the West Sea either at the end of June or in early July as a show of force in response to North Korea's attack on the Navy corvette Cheonan. But China vehemently protested against a massive U.S. presence on its doorstep and conducted live-fire drills in the East China Sea.
China also prevented any wording that unambiguously identified North Korea as the culprit in the Cheonan sinking from a UN Security Council presidential statement issued last Friday and even inserted a North Korean denial in the document. This is strong evidence that China wants to remain North Korea's patron and a warning to the North not to stray too far from the parameters China has set.
The U.S. and China are the biggest factors in South Korea's national security and economy. The U.S. has been a steadfast ally over the last 60 years, and that relationship can only grow stronger as long as China seeks to strengthen its hold on North Korea. In 2009, trade with China totaled US$140.9 billion, greater than trade with the U.S. and Japan combined. And China emerged as a major economic power alongside the U.S. since the 2008 global financial crisis. It has also embarked on a more aggressive foreign policy. The future of South Korea depends on how wisely and effectively it deals with relations with the U.S. and China.
The previous administration sought to position South Korea as a "balancer" in relations between China and the U.S., but that triggered an angry response from Washington and cynicism from Beijing. Former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's experiment to embrace Asia at the expense of loosening its ties with the U.S. failed. If Seoul upsets its alliance with the U.S., it may end up following the footsteps of Japan.
But that does not mean Seoul should allow Northeast Asia to return to a Cold War where the South Korea, U.S., and Japan face off against North Korea and China. If that situation becomes permanent, stability on the Korean Peninsula will be at risk, and reunification will become more elusive.
China's influence over North Korea can sometimes lead to positive results, but the Cheonan incident has shown that the opposite is the case most of the time. South Korea should revise its diplomatic strategy of dealing with North Korea through China. Instead it needs to find a way to shift China's stance by bringing about changes in North Korea. Inter-Korean relations must change in order to wean North Korea off China's patronage. This will in turn lead to further changes in inter-Korean relations. The key to overcoming China's close ties with North Korea lies in inter-Korean relations.
The question is whether President Lee Myung-bak has the leadership to convince the South Korean public of the global diplomatic circumstances that make such changes necessary.