US strategy of checking China could impede SK’s response to cozying NK-Russia ties

Posted on : 2023-12-11 16:49 KST Modified on : 2023-12-11 16:49 KST
Some observers suggest the trilateral closeness under US leadership could end up creating risks for South Korea
National security advisers of the US, South Korea and Japan — Jake Sullivan, Cho Tae-yong, and Takeo Akiba, respectively — stand for a photo following their joint briefing held at the presidential office in Seoul’s Yongsan District on Dec. 9. (Yonhap)
National security advisers of the US, South Korea and Japan — Jake Sullivan, Cho Tae-yong, and Takeo Akiba, respectively — stand for a photo following their joint briefing held at the presidential office in Seoul’s Yongsan District on Dec. 9. (Yonhap)

South Korea, the United States, and Japan reached an agreement on comprehensive cooperation that extends from previous security-related areas targeting North Korea, China, and Russia into economic and high technology-related areas connected to supply chains, technology protections, joint research, and artificial intelligence.

With their agreement on a plan for new trilateral initiatives, the three sides are maximizing pressure on North Korea while ratcheting up US-led checks against China. Analysts voiced concerns that South Korea is allowing itself to be dictated by Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, despite being in a situation of having to manage relations with China as North Korea and Russia pursue closer connections.

On Saturday, South Korean national security adviser Cho Tae-yong had a two-hour trilateral meeting in the presidential office in Seoul’s Yongsan neighborhood with his US and Japanese counterparts Jake Sullivan and Takeo Akiba.

In a joint briefing after the meeting, the three of them announced that they had agreed to step up coordination with the international community in connection with a response to North Korean provocations. The meeting of the three countries’ advisers was a follow-up event to a trilateral summit on Aug. 18 at Camp David, a US presidential retreat.

Sullivan said the three sides had “launched new trilateral initiatives to counter the threats posed by the DPRK, from its cybercrime and cryptocurrency money laundering to its reckless space and ballistic missile tests.”

DPRK stands for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name.

Akiba said they planned to “work together on a response to the illicit cybermoney activity that provides a funding source for North Korea’s nuclear and missile development.”

This means that in the wake of their previous agreements on real-time sharing of North Korean missile warning intelligence and joint military exercises, the three sides now also plan to work toward blocking North Korean access to foreign funds.

In addition to North Korea-related issues, the national security advisers agreed to cooperate on core mineral-related development areas such as supply chain early warning systems, the swift establishment of a technology protection network, and responses to the manipulation of opinion with fake news.

In a briefing Sunday, South Korean presidential office spokesperson Kim Soo-kyung said the meeting was “an occasion for sharing various opinions not only on security in the traditional sense but on economic security with areas such as advanced technology development and supply chain disruptions, as well as cybersecurity with areas such as fake news and hacking.”

“As security crises become more diverse and sophisticated, our trilateral coordination will become closer and tighter-knit,” she stressed.

But some observers suggested the trilateral closeness under US leadership could end up creating risks for South Korea, which occupies a different position from either the US or Japan.

In terms of relations with China in particular, the US’ aim is containment, while South Korea is in the position of having to manage the situation as the relationship between North Korea and Russia grows rapidly closer. As the opposition between South Korea, the US, and Japan on one side and North Korea, China, and Russia on the other becomes more entrenched, Seoul will not be able to count on Beijing’s cooperation on North Korea-related issues.

In a briefing after the meeting, Sullivan mentioned various areas that related to US national interests, including “continu[ing] to stand up for peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and freedom of navigation in the East and South China seas” as well as achieving a more open, prosperous, and safer Indo-Pacific region and intensifying cooperation among the three sides’ coast guards.

Following a separate bilateral dialogue on next-generation core and emerging technologies, the South Korean and US national security advisers reached an agreement to establish an unofficial trilateral dialogue body with India by March of next year. Analysts interpreted this as a US move to contain China through technology cooperation with South Korea and India.

That would run counter to the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s attempts to improve relations with Beijing.

During an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco last month, Yoon attempted unsuccessfully to hold a bilateral summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The prospects of holding a trilateral summit with China and Japan within the year have also evaporated.

Experts said the new trilateral initiatives were largely symbolic.

“It seems like since they created a trilateral frame at Camp David, they attached the ‘initiative’ title in the sense of showing some kind of joint action,” commented Wi Sung-lac, who previously served as South Korea’s ambassador to Russia.

Kim Joon-hyung, the former chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, said, “These initiatives appear to have been presented as a last resort since the past sanctions on North Korea have failed to stop its development.”

The experts stressed the importance of leaving room for diplomatic efforts to improve or manage relations with China, rather than blindly pursuing closeness with the US and Japan.

Observing that the “network for containing China was strengthened somewhat” through the meeting, Wi said, “The establishment of peace on the Korean Peninsula and pursuit of its unification are South Korea’s agenda alone, and differences could arise [with the US and Japan] depending on the interests.”

Yoon also asked the three national security advisers to dinner on Friday at his official residence in Seoul’s Hannam neighborhood.

By Kim Mi-na, staff reporter; Shin Hyeong-cheol, staff reporter

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