SEOUL–North Korea’s satellite rocket launch has claimed its first casualty amid a changing and increasingly volatile regional security landscape that’s dragging in China, the US and Japan.

A North Korean long-range rocket is launched at the Sohae launch site in North Korea, Feb. 7, 2016
A North Korean long-range rocket is launched at the Sohae launch site in North Korea, Feb. 7, 2016

South Korea announced on Feb. 10 that it’s closing down the inter-Korean economic project at Kaesong Industrial Complex which Seoul set up 12 years ago to provide hard currency earnings for the North Korean regime. 

South Korean minister of unification affairs Hong Yong Pyo made it clear that the measure was a protest against the North’s nuclear test in January and its test-firing of a long-range missile on Sunday. Hong said his officials will talk with North Korean officials to decide the official closure of 120 factories within the area operated by South Korean firms but employing North Korean workers.

More than 50,000 North Koreans labor inside the complex producing garments and kitchen wares. As a result of the closure, North Korea will be losing about $100 million a year in wages and other services provided to these factories.

The Park government is making it clear that this measure is a retaliation against the North’s nuclear and missile programs. The South will halt electric power and water supplies to the complex, effectively halting its operation. It’s the first tough retaliation Seoul is taking against the North’s aggressive behavior.

Meanwhile, the Park government has come under pressure from conservatives who want Seoul to seek a nuclear program of its own to counter the North’s threats. This will not be easy to translate into action as South Korea is a signatory of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. South Korea is also covered under the US nuclear umbrella. But the media is calling for a change in the country’s current nuclear stance. 

“At least, the government can request to bring back the tactical nuclear weapons” the US withdrew in 1992, according to the influential Chosun Ilbo newspaper. But others are calling for an Israeli formula of acquiring an independent nuclear force. The major voice calling for this option is Chung Mong June, the ruling Saenuri Party’s major conservative voice.

More N.K. provocations

Four weeks after the nuclear test of Jan. 6, North Korea is piling up a series of further provocations by launching a long-range rocket and starting probing actions along the eastern coastlines of South Korea.

While North Korean patrol vessels are trying to penetrate the sea-line borders, South Korean forces are on alert against the possibility of renewed hostility along the demilitarized zone. Military tensions have been running high since beginning of the year, ending a short lull following an exchange of gunfire last August.

What role China is willing or not willing to play has become the main focus of all parties in the crisis. Pyongyang’s central message is that the Kim Jong-un regime will not be deterred by pressure from China or the US. But the timing of its fourth bomb test and missile firing could be a sign that it wants to make an impact on the US presidential election campaign, with the hope of reversing the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience.”

Obama’s policy of ignoring the Kim regime’s belligerence, while piling up more and more sanctions has hurt the Pyongyang regime. Nor has it been comfortable with a series of recent international developments, such as Cuba’s diplomatic rapprochement with the US and Iran’s acceptance of a nuclear deal with the West. Iran has been a source of funding for Kim’s missile program while Cuba has long been Pyongyang’s friendly outpost in the Americas. Now they have both fallen to US interests.

Seoul inches away from Beijing

Park and Xi meet in Beijing in September
Park and Xi meet in Beijing in September

At the same time, China’s refusal to deal firmly with the Pyongyang regime is  having a negative consequence on the East Asian geopolitical landscape. Tired of Beijing’s refusal to tame Pyongyang, South Korea is inching away from the Chinese sphere of interests and moving back to the US-Japan-South Korea security triangle.

The Park government in Seoul is facing a chorus of jeers for not distancing itself from China, even at the risk of trade losses. North Korea has become both a political and economic liability for Beijing in its relations with the South.

Without China’s food aid, hard currency provision and oil supplies running to about a million tons a year, the North Korean regime can hardly survive. Beijing should use that considerable leverage to tame the Kim regime, rather than face the inevitable course of regime collapse with the attendant chaos that China fears, government critics say.

“If China can’t stand a regime change in Pyongyang,” says Rhee Young Il, a prominent China specialist in Seoul, “it can at least change the reckless driver,” he says, arguing China is not altogether bereft of an alternative.

But China dreads change. Speaking by phone to South Korean President Park Geun Hye for the first time since the crisis began a month ago, China’s president Xi Jinping stuck to his outdated formula: 1) China wants denuclearization of both North and South Korea;  2) maintenance of peace and stability on the peninsula; and 3) pursuit of these objectives through dialogue and negotiation  only.

It’s a self-contradictory formula since North Korea has effectively nullified all these conditions. China’s position has been rendered irrelevant and valueless as Pyongyang walked out of the Six-Party Process on Denuclearization more than a decade ago in 2005.

The entire process went on to collapse in 2009 with the North vowing never to return to the Six-Party talks. This was after Pyongyang took oil deliveries and peaceful nuclear reactor parts from South Korea as compensatory gifts for abandoning its nuclear option. To top it off, North Korea now declares itself a “nuclear state.”

China’s failure to press for a “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” as set forth in the 2005 Six-party agreement has shaken confidence in its ability to curb North Korean actions. Its continuous supply of food and oil, and its role as a foreign exchange source by employing a large number of North Korean guest workers, have prompted  Seoul to think that China is playing a game.

China, for its part, regards North Korea as part of a regional chess-game designed to keep the US and Japan at bay. Given the growing tension in the South China Sea, and its territorial disputes with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets, China apparently feels even less inclined to pressure Pyongyang which serves as a useful buffer for its interests, analysts here believe. They say North Korea’s value as a strategic and geopolitical asset has grown, not diminished as China asserts itself in the region.

Kim is well aware of his upper hand and he’s letting China know about it by openly humiliating China. But an opposite situation is developing with South Korea. In the past few years, President Park has sought to develop a bilateral partnership with Beijing, hoping that a pursuit of enlightened self-interest on the part of Beijing and Seoul could lead to a common interest in restraining the Kim regime.

Return of Thaad

Thaad launcher
Thaad launcher

Although the value of the South’s military alliance with the US has never been questioned, Park has cooperated willingly with Beijing on certain areas, supporting China’s initiative on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank  against the wishes of Washington.

Seoul is also delaying on agreement to deploy a strategically sensitive Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missiles or Thaad, which Beijing and Moscow oppose on the grounds that it encourages a strategic missile defense buildup in Asia.

All that circumspection has now vanished. Seoul and Washington have formally began talks on placing Thaad system, over China’s objection. Russia has also expressed concern, saying it will regard Thaad deployment as a “negative influence” on Seoul-Moscow relations.

It’s China’s fault that South Korea is moving back to its traditional status as a core in the trilateral alliance linking the US and Japan. Similarly, China’s position aligns it with a northern alliance linking with North Korea and Russia. This will not be a comfortable alliance for China as it seeks to burnish its image as a new superpower.

Seoul is on the way to restoring strategic ties with Japan, now that the nettlesome issue of “comfort women” is out of the way. Both are market-driven democracies forming a bastion of freedom in Asia.

Against the backdrop of this diplomatic thaw, Park and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are communicating on the issue of sharing strategic intelligence on North Korea. Japan is also welcoming the idea of placing Thaad systems not only in Korea but also in Japan itself.

A collaboration at the military intelligence level is also expected to eventually clear the way for Japan Self-Defense Force participation in the future trilateral military exercises with the US.

Washington and Seoul have also stepped up military preparedness. In the wake of nuclear and ballistic missile threats, the US and South Korea have agreed on a strong show of force by scheduling their biggest military exercise so far in March, South Korean troops are also under order to respond to any conventional provocation from the North with prompt counterattacks.

Whether the rising tension will persuade China to intervene forcefully on North Korea remains to be seen. What’s clear is that Beijing is likely to benefit least from the new security landscape shaping up around the peninsula. 

Shim Jae Hoon is a distinguished Korean political analyst and commentator who served as Seoul bureau chief of the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review.

Leave a comment