Who's to Blame for Breakdown in Seoul-Beijing Communication?

      January 12, 2016 14:06

      The Defense Ministry requested an emergency teleconference between Defense Minister Han Min-koo and Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan after North Korea's nuclear test on Jan. 6. The military hotline was established after a summit between President Park Geun-hye and her Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in 2014 and was activated on Dec. 31 last year.

      The basic premise of establishing the military hotline is that the two sides can contact each other at any time. But now that Seoul wished to contact Beijing in the first major crisis since the hotline was established, Beijing simply did not respond.

      The leaders of the two countries, too, have yet to speak to each other. Park talked on the phone with the leaders of the U.S. and Japan a day after the nuclear test. She also wanted to talk with Xi on the phone but has yet to receive a response.

      The only talks Seoul and Beijing have had on the matter so far was a phone call between their foreign ministers on Jan. 8. They clearly had different priorities. Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se repeatedly asked China to take strong sanctions against North Korea, but Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed resolving the crisis through dialogue.

      China's Foreign Ministry reported only Wang's comments to reporters after the call. And as the U.S. dispatched a B-52 long-range bomber to fly over the Korean Peninsula in a show of force, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei reverted to the tired formula of urging "relevant parties to remain calm and exercise restraint."

      It is difficult to expect China to move completely in synch with Seoul's diplomatic priorities when it comes to North Korea, and its reluctance to take a hardline stance is understandable to a certain extent. But it is unreasonable of China to simply refuse to respond South Korea's request to communicate via a military hotline their two leaders established.

      Park braved international criticism last year to attend a massive military parade in Beijing commemorating the end of World War II. But any boost in amicable relations has been nullified by Beijing's snub.

      The problem is the lack of diplomatic foresight by Seoul's Foreign Ministry. Yun praised Seoul-Beijing relations as "the best ever" in July last year. He even said South Korea's status of being torn between strengthening its alliance with the U.S. and China was a "blessing." 

      But Seoul has found itself stonewalled by Beijing the moment an actual crisis occurred. Instead, the Park administration, which refused to hold a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for more than two years unless Tokyo resolved the issue of comfort women, suddenly reached a vaguely worded agreement with Japan late last year.

      Park's focus on bolstering diplomatic ties with China ended up making her other allies suspicious of Seoul's intentions. Now, Seoul suddenly finds itself in a position where it must change its entire diplomatic approach.

      How can the government instill confidence among the public with such a hit-and-miss track record? If this faux pas is the result of diplomatic miscalculation by the president's foreign policy team, officials must take responsibility and fall on their swords. If the president is to blame, she at least owes the public an explanation.

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