Is there room for Korean peace in the competition between the US, China and Russia?

Posted on : 2022-03-04 17:22 KST Modified on : 2022-03-04 17:30 KST
As one former senior government official put it, “A buffer country that takes one side from two options will be foisted upon the battlefield of conflict”
President Moon Jae-in delivers a speech marking the 103rd anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement on March 1 at the National Memorial of the Korean Provisional Government in Seoul’s Seodaemun District. (Yonhap News)
President Moon Jae-in delivers a speech marking the 103rd anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement on March 1 at the National Memorial of the Korean Provisional Government in Seoul’s Seodaemun District. (Yonhap News)

“Korea is the country with the heaviest security burden in the world. For now, the top security priority is to deter war between the two Koreas, but the geopolitical situation itself on the Korean Peninsula always remains a grave security environment from a broader and longer-term perspective.”

These were the words of President Moon Jae-in when he spoke at the commencement and commissioning ceremony for the 57th graduating class of Korea Army Academy at Yeongcheon on Monday. It’s not diplomatic rhetoric. Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which erupted amid the heated hegemonic competition between the US and China, and the resulting confrontation between the US and Russia signals a change in the strategic landscape of the international order.

Above all, the risk that the Korean Peninsula, which was at the forefront of the confrontation between capitalism and socialism during the Cold War, will be pushed back to the fault lines of the 21st century’s US vs. China-Russia clash is rapidly growing.

At a ceremony marking the 103rd anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement, Moon said that the rise of “state-centered nationalism, which seeks to gain hegemony by force” and “concerns over a new Cold War” are all reasons why “peace on the Korean Peninsula is a must for us to become stronger.”

In order to fundamentally solve the Korean Peninsula security problem — symbolized by the Korean War and the decades-long division of Korea, North Korea’s obsession with nuclear weapons, and the hostile relationship between the US and North Korea — cooperation with the US, China, and Russia, as well as the independent efforts of South and North Korea, are absolutely necessary.

Despite the intensifying US-China hegemonic and strategic competition and increasing domestic and international pressure for South Korea to choose one of the two sides, Moon is not breaking with his strategic stance of “harmoniously developing South Korea-China relations based on a strong South Korea-US alliance.”

In order to escape from the Cold War paradigm that Korea has been stuck in for decades, cooperation with both the US and China is not merely an “option” but more of a “rule” closely tied to the fate of South Korea’s foreign policy strategy. Peace on the Korean Peninsula is the top priority, but protecting national interests in terms of economic security, including the protection of citizens and businesses entering overseas markets, is also an indispensable task.

On Feb. 22, President Moon personally convened and presided over a joint meeting of the National Security Council standing committee and an economic security strategy council. At the meeting, the president expressed his hope “that the situation in Ukraine will not negatively affect the efforts for the Korean Peninsula peace process.”

Through these words, the president is emphasizing that while it may be difficult to anticipate progress on inter-Korean peace for the time being due to the changing international environment, it is imperative to ensure that such a setback doesn’t undo the gains made thus far.

The situation is indeed dire. “The situation we’re in now calls for more concern about a hot war than the advent of a new Cold War. There is no mediator [in this current situation],” a veteran foreign affairs and security official lamented.

In reality, the hegemonic and strategic competition between the US and China, the confrontation between the US and Russia, and Sino-Russian cooperation are all intertwined, accelerating the centrifugal force of the international order.

The US hegemon no longer has the capacity to supply the economic and military resources necessary to maintain its international order. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” and Russian President Putin’s “Russkiy Mir” (Russian world) ideology and his quest to claim his “share” in Europe, all pose challenges to the current international order.

However, the US is South Korea's strongest security ally while China is its largest trading partner. Moreover, these are the same two countries that stained the Korean Peninsula with blood over the three-year war that began in 1950 and who subsequently signed the Armistice Agreement. Russia, for its part, was a member of the six-party talks. Given these facts, if Korea really wants to escape its Cold War paradigm, then securing cooperation from all three of these countries will be paramount. This is the path of Korea that cannot be strayed from.

The problem, however, is that this path will inevitably be directly affected by the new international order created by the three-way strategic game between the US, China and Russia — namely, the struggle between the liberal market economy and an authoritarian market economy. Although South Korea belongs to the “liberal world” centered around the US, it is also connected to China and Russia through the global market economy.

The liberal market economy and the authoritarian market economy are opposed in terms of values and ideology — i.e., liberalism versus authoritarianism. However, they coexist on the basis of a global market economy. This is the world order that the US, the only hegemony since the end of the Cold War, has forged.

But it is difficult to expect an easing in this struggle of values between the US, China and Russia before the US midterm elections scheduled for this fall and China’s 20th party congress of its Communist Party — both of which will have a decisive bearing on the political fates of US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The most essential issue here is whether the common ground of a global market economy that made it possible for liberalism and authoritarianism to coexist after the end of the Cold War can be maintained. If the common foundation of the market economy collapses and the global supply chain is completely separated, it would be a disaster for South Korea — the largest beneficiary of the global market economy and very dependent on energy and raw materials from other countries since the end of the Cold War.

However, it is difficult to predict whether the supply chain reorganization strategy that the US is pushing to maintain its global hegemony will push China and Russia out of the market economy again. Amidst — and despite — the hegemonic and strategic competition, the scale of trade between the US and China is growing, and the sanctions against Russia levied by the US and the European Union to punish Putin are not yet targeting the energy and raw materials industry, which is the mainstay of the Russian economy.

Although the conclusion of this saga of the US, China and Russia is not yet known, a very worrisome situation is already emerging; namely, the US’ weakening focus on North Korea and the threat of the United Nations Security Council’s breakdown. These are difficult problems that the incoming South Korean administration will shoulder when they come to power on May 9.

A former high-ranking government official commented, “As a buffer country positioned on a colliding fault line, South Korea should not forget the historical lesson that ‘A buffer country that takes one side from two options will be foisted upon the battlefield of conflict,’” adding, “The new administration should shirk off inertia, reflect on its thoughts and systems from their very foundation, and compose its foreign security policy with flexibility and practicality.”

A veteran foreign security expert also said, “In order to maintain its ground and not be swayed by the conflict and rivalry amongst the US, China, and Russia, [South Korea] should, more than anything, alleviate its internal conflict.” They continued, “The new administration should devote itself to building popular consensus on its foreign policy.”

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

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