[News analysis] Will S. Korean equidistant diplomacy succeed?

Posted on : 2021-04-01 17:17 KST Modified on : 2021-04-01 17:17 KST
The two concurrent meetings could be read as a strategic effort by Seoul to use both Washington and Beijing to restart the Korean Peninsula peace process
South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong speaks during a press conference at the foreign ministry in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap News)
South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong speaks during a press conference at the foreign ministry in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap News)

Caught on the front lines of the conflict between the US and China, South Korea is taking part simultaneously in a trilateral national security office directors’ dialogue with the US and Japan and a bilateral foreign ministers’ meeting with China.

The national security directors’ meeting is taking place in Washington on Friday and Saturday, while the foreign ministers’ meeting is taking place Saturday in Xiamen, a city in China’s Fujian Province that sits across the strait from Taiwan — the “powder keg” in the US-China conflict.

South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Chung Eui-yong explained that the scheduling “was not decided that way on purpose.”

But the two concurrent meetings could be read as part of a strategic effort by the Moon Jae-in administration to use both Washington and Beijing to restart the Korean Peninsula peace process. In other words, it is attempting to share Seoul’s position as much as possible with Washington, which is finishing up its review of North Korea policy, while also hoping for Beijing to play a role in improving inter-Korean relations.

The Blue House announced Wednesday that National Security Office Director Suh Hoon would be visiting the US on Friday for a dialogue with his US and Japanese counterparts.

During the meeting, Suh is scheduled to hear an explanation on the US review of North Korea policy from White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, after which he is to meet with Japanese National Security Secretariat Secretary General Shigeru Kitamura and others to exchange opinions on ideas for increasing trilateral cooperation.

Announcing the trilateral discussions in a Tuesday statement, US National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said the dialogue would be taking place “at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, [Maryland],” not far from Washington.

Following the trilateral dialogue, Suh also plans to have individual bilateral discussions with the US and Japan.

At the same time, South Korea has a meeting of foreign ministers on Saturday between Chung and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.

The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained that the meeting would be an “occasion for seeking out ideas for advancing bilateral relations between the Republic of Korea and China and exchanging in-depth opinions of the Korean Peninsula, the region and international issues.”

Chung’s visit to China is also a reciprocation of Wang’s visit to South Korea last November.

Perhaps conscious of the sensitive nature of the two concurrent diplomatic events, Chung stressed at a Wednesday press conference that “the scheduling for the Republic of Korea-China foreign ministers’ meeting and the trilateral national security directors’ dialogue with the US and Japan was not decided that way on purpose, but just happened to coincide.”

“The US and China are both important countries to us,” he added.

“The US is our sole ally, and China is our close neighbor and biggest trading partner. The US and China are not for us to choose between, nor have they ever made such a demand of us,” he reiterated.

But Chung also made no secret of his hopes of using the meeting with Wang to enlist Beijing’s aid in improving inter-Korean relations.

“China has always supported our position on policies for a more permanent peace based on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. I hope to lead the discussions in a very candid and constructive direction in terms of what sort of role China can play,” he said.

China is expected to attempt to rein in South Korea’s approach toward the US by raising the possibility of a simultaneous invitation of Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February 2022.

The question is whether South Korea’s “two-bridge” strategy can succeed. The venue for the foreign ministers’ meeting with China has already attracted some comment.

With its emphasis on “One China,” China has asserted issues involving Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang to be “key interests” where it will not make concessions under any circumstances while making every effort to keep the US from interfering.

Amid this situation, the repeated breaches of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone by Chinese Air Force aircraft prompted Adm. John Aquilino, the nominee to serve as the next commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, to warn the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 23 that the “military threat to Taiwan is increasing.”

On March 25, the Taiwanese government announced its national defense plan, which it presents every four years. In it, it stated plans to increase the firing range of its air-to-surface missiles, stating that China had been “increasing its threat” and “showing hostility.”

In a Tuesday report, Japan’s Nikkei newspaper said the US and Japan were coordinating to include wording about the “importance of the Taiwan Strait’s stability” in a joint document to be issued after their summit in Washington on April 8.

Under the circumstances, South Korea’s participation in foreign minister talks in Xiamen as another US ally could mistakenly send the message that it supports China’s position on Taiwan.

“South Korea can’t continue with its current approach,” said former South Korean Ambassador to Russia Wi Sung-lac.

“We could end up seeing Japan’s views being mostly reflected rather than South Korea’s when [the US] finishes finalizing its North Korea policy review shortly,” he predicted.

By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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