Part IV of Me and Van Jackson Debating South Korea’s Role in the South China Sea: N Korea Comes First

Kim Jong Un

This is a cross-post of an essay originally written for the Lowy Institute this week, available here.

This essay is the last round of a 2-month long debate between me and Van Jackson of Georgetown. Van wrote at the Diplomat; I wrote at the Interpreter. Here is part 1 (Van), part 2 (me), and part 3 (Van again). Van is a friend and way smarter than me. You should read his stuff.

Basically, I argue that if South Korea gets involved in the South China Sea flap, opposing China, then China will resume its relationship with North Korea. Right now that relationship is the coldest it has ever been. That is awesome. We really, really want this. The day China cuts off North Korea is the day the countdown to North Korea’s implosion begins.

Van argues South Korea could help get better Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. Mathematically, that is true; every little bit helps. But that help is small and the gains of a Sino-North Korean split are huge. Even if that split won’t happen soon, there is no way North Korea will collapse without it. So we have to do everything we can to groom Beijing’s alienation from Pyongyang. SK keeping quiet on the SCS, even when it agrees with the anti-Chinese coalition down there, is a necessary, albeit minor, cost.

Anyway, it’s a good debate. Judge for yourself after the jump.


To new readers, this is part four in a running debate between me and Van Jackson of Georgetown. Van (we are friends) argued originally that the coalition pushing back on China in the South China Sea (SCS) could use South Korea’s extra weight. I responded that South Korea, as a middle power, can bring little weight to bear on the SCS tussle and that such intervention might heal the emerging rift between North Korea and China. Van then responded that the current Sino-North Korea split is likely exaggerated, and that too much focus on North Korea blinds South Korea to its other regional interests. In this round, I will argue that North Korea must dominate South Korean foreign policy, on both national security and humanitarian grounds, and that Seoul brings so little to the SCS fight that even the modest glimmers of a Chinese-North Korean split are worth its reticence.

South Korean Grand Strategy

In the end, as Van says, the root of our conflict may be disagreements over South Korean grand strategy. Van seems to fit in what one might call the ‘Global Korea’ school. Global Korea was a notion for South Korean strategy first pushed by former president Lee Myung Bak (2008-13). Lee sought, with strong support from the US and the DC think-tank set, to re-imagine South Korea as a ‘responsible middle power’ with global interests. Lee was the first Korean president to draft a ‘national security strategy’ (here is the most recent) based on the American model. He got South Korea involved in the struggle against Somali piracy, and Washington think-tanks wrote the expected salutations of Korea’s expanding horizons, which, not surprisingly, dovetailed with American preferences. Korea, for example, would be a more vocal participant in the war on terror.

None of this is really wrong, but much of it changes the subject from the issue which everyone, not just South Koreans, is burned out with, but nonetheless will not go away: North Korea. Call this the ‘North Korea first’ school of Korean strategy. When North Korea is gone, then Global Korea makes sense. Until then, it is important that Seoul stay the course. South Korea needs to take serious ownership of the North Korea problem, and I worry that it does not. South Koreans are increasingly wary of unification given the huge costs. North Korean defectors in the South – heroes to my mind – often face social discrimination. South Koreans get far more animated discussing Japan in their foreign policy than North Korea. Missile defense, which seems strikingly obvious to the analyst community, is nonetheless very contentious in Seoul. Civil defense for nuclear scenarios is not taken seriously. The South Korean military has regular problems with abuse, hazing, corruption, and glitzy, prestige-driven procurement choices. It is not properly structured for post-unification stabilization, nor ready for a COIN scenario in the North, nor was it able to take-over its own defense despite years of lead-time. Most of western analysts of Korean security I know worry about ROK Army readiness, and fear that the US defense guarantee has blunted Korean strategic thinking.

In my own experience in Korea, I routinely find my students, colleagues, and friends are simply exhausted with North Korea. This is entirely understandable (most analysts are too). South Korea is a modern, globalized place. Like the rest of us, South Koreans want to watch their HDTVs, travel, gab on their cellphones, find a cool job, and otherwise live the sorts of modern, fun lifestyles they see in western television; no one wants to hunker down for a long, grim, expensive head-to-head contest with grey, gloomy, reactionary North Korea. And Global Korea’s appeal is precisely that. It places South Korea in the company of states Koreans want to be peers with – the US, Japan, the EU – not bizarre, backward, fatiguing North Korea.

The problem of course is that this is just not sustainable. North Korea is not going away, and no amount of ‘global Korean’ activity can change that, as we will all be reminded next time North Korea does something outrageous, like pick a fight in the Yellow Sea or send a drone over Seoul. North Korea has not lashed out in awhile, but with the Winter Olympics coming to South Korea in 2018 and the spiraling nuclear program, it is not hard to imagine friction. Indeed it would be unusual if the North were to not misbehave.

In short, South Korea needs to get out front on North Korea. North Korea should not be pushed onto the US, China, the Six Party Framework, the international community, and so on. South Korean politicians need to be upfront on the costs and risks, and argue vigorously that they are worth it. South Koreans need to be reminded that, as seductive as Global Korea is, the Cold War is still on in Korea, and that North Korea is their historic burden. Yes, that really sucks, and yes, the rest of us can help at the margins. But firstly and largely, this is a South Korean problem, which means more leadership, more defense spending, more preparation for North Korean occupation and reorganization, and more honestly with the public to groom support for this historic project. And to her credit, the Park Geun-Hye administration has moved on some of this. She has reiterated the goal of unification, faced down the North in one of its typical ginned-up faux crises (in 2013), and has pushed the Chinese hard on this.

Korea, China and the South China Sea

Van makes a few other points worth debating:

1. I argued that South Korean reticence on SCS helps the widening rift between China and North Korea. Van may be right that this is not due to South Korean diplomacy, but that does not alter my point that if South Korea does step into the SCS flap, that step will push China back toward Pyongyang. So long as North Korea and China are scrapping, we should not rock the boat, and if Park can keep that ball rolling by schmoozing the Standing Committee, so much the better.

2. Van argues that North Korea could probably find a way to survive without Chinese aid. I am extremely skeptical of this. North Korea’s economy is such a disaster, that it almost certainly requires regular, large subsidies, as it did throughout the Cold War from the USSR, and since then from China among others. The only time North Korea stood on its own, a brutal, self-created famine followed. Van suggests maybe Russia could step into the gap, but Putin’s Russia is dwarfed by China and has little regional presence. China is the irreplaceable lifeline, as Kim Jong-Un’s last-minute decision to skip the Moscow WWII festivities suggests.

3. Van suggests that China only acts on its national interests defined by cold realpolitik. I agree. But interests come from identity and perception, and there is growing evidence that the Chinese are re-thinking the value of the North Korean buffer. Specifically, moderates in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Chinese international relations academia have intimated for years now that the North Korean alliance is not that balance-positive for Beijing, because it fuels the American pivot and pushes Seoul and Tokyo toward the US. Abandonment will not happen soon, but the easiest way to smother this emerging debate is for South Korea to strike an openly anti-Chinese position.

4. Finally, I still see little evidence that South Korea can make much difference in the SCS. It is a medium power and distant from the area. What matters is the response the littorals, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, plus the larger, over-the-horizon states – the US, Japan, and India. I see no obvious reason to jeopardize this long-sought, very valuable cooling Sino-North Korean relationship for one more small weight on the regional scale.

11 thoughts on “Part IV of Me and Van Jackson Debating South Korea’s Role in the South China Sea: N Korea Comes First

  1. Some people think that the South Koreans are being “too close” to China. With some netizens even going so far as to brand SK a “Chinese ally”. But erroneously or not, it did seem to me that Seoul “cozying up to” Beijing was a strategy to woo China away and isolate North Korea. Besides, the whole point of a “buffer” is to provide a “safe zone”. But with Pyongyang’s insane ravings and even occasional outright military attacks, this “buffer zone” seems just as likely to invite chaos to China’s doorstep. Also, if SK has this reputation of being relatively friendlier to China, I suppose they could be used as a sort of “good cop” should we need a good cop/bad cop approach to Beijing.


  2. Pingback: The Iran Deal Cannot be a Template for a North Korea Deal if NK doesn’t Want to Deal | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  3. Pingback: Park Geun-Hye’s Trip to that Bombastic Chinese Military Parade Was Actually a Good Idea | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  4. Pingback: North Korea Survives. Start Hardening South Korea for a Long Contest | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  5. Pingback: Corruption, not Foreign Affairs, should be Moon Jae-In’s Focus | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  6. Pingback: Corruption, not Foreign Affairs, should be Moon Jae-In’s Focus – x2pjdvp8

  7. Pingback: The Wide Gap between South Korean and American Media Coverage of North Korea | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  8. Pingback: Five Lessons from the North Korea Crisis – Spearhead Research – Pakistan

  9. Pingback: Trump, Naturally, is Making this the Weirdest North Korea Crisis Ever | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  10. Pingback: Moon Jae-In debe obtener un buy-in doméstico para sus planes de paz – Peru Global

  11. Pingback: Hanoi Fallout (3): Moon Jae-In is Now Leading Détente with N Korea – and He Needs Clearer Domestic Political Support for It | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s