A worker cleans a bronze statue in Seoul of Admiral Yi Sun-Shin, who won a major naval victory over Japan in the 16th century. Koreans turn to memories of the admiral whenever they worry that their small country is 'like a shrimp among whales.' Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

Just 100 meters from the gates of the Blue House, South Korea’s stately, mountain-backed presidential residence in Seoul, two competing protests took place last week.

That is not unusual. A plaza set up within presidential eyeshot has long been a popular spot for groups wielding their democratic rights to promote causes. What was unusual was that last week’s two opposed groups of protesters – separated from each other by police – were largely composed, not of South Koreans, but of Chinese.

The demonstrations are a potent symbol of something going on in, around and over today’s South Korea. A domestic proverb calls Korea, long nestled uneasily between the larger Northeast Asian powers of China, Japan and Russia, “a shrimp between whales” and warns that “when whales fight, shrimps are crushed.”

That was the case when Japan used Korea as a springboard for an abortive 16th century invasion of China; when Japan won the late 19th and early20th century power struggle to control the peninsula; and when the unlucky country was divided into two in 1945 by great power fiat.

The ancient fear is coming home to roost once more, as South faces soaring risk across multiple geographic and sectoral fault lines. On the economic front, there is unprecedented pressure from Japan. On the security front, China and Russia are acting in unprecedented concert in Korean skies. Meanwhile, the centerpiece of President Moon Jae-in’s efforts – engagement with North Korea – is imploding.

It is a stark turnaround. A mere year ago, Moon was being hailed for his sure-footedness in walking a tightrope between competing interests and powerful neighbors. He looks considerably less adroit now.

China vs China

For centuries, Beijing took a close interest in the flashpoint Korean peninsula. Beijing-Seoul relations have advanced massively since the 1950-53 Korean War, but ever-closer ties are being reflected in a new development: Chinese domestic disputes are spilling onto Korean soil.

There have been reported clashes on South Korean campuses between mainland Chinese and Hong Kong students over the issue of Hong Kong’s ongoing protests. And last week, at the Blue House, visiting Chinese, together with Korean allies, protested against Chinese refugees from an unorthodox church that is banned in China.

Chinese family members of members of a church Beijing considers a cult protest outside the Blue House. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

The Church of Almighty God (CAG) is considered a dangerous religious cult by Beijing. Church members, thousands who have fled overseas, say they are persecuted in China, with imprisonment and torture. Last week, visiting Chinese family members of CAG members demanded that their relatives, who are seeking refugee status in South Korea, return to China.

Brandishing placards reading “Send fake refugees back to China” some 37 family members gathered with a handful of Korea allies. One man spoke up, saying that his son and his wife, CAG members, were “misleading South Korea,” that they had ”ruined his family.” He insisted that CAG was “very dangerous.”

However, the visiting Chinese family members declined to speak to Asia Times and a Korean pastor who joined their protest refused to talk (or even identify himself).

Given their refusal to answer questions, it is not clear if the South Koreans’ position is a religious stance against an unorthodox church they consider a cult, a far-right stance against refugees – or both. Nor is it clear what their relationship is with Chinese authorities.

CAG members, who protested approximately 50 meters away, were more forthcoming.

One said that a South Korean anti-CAG organizer, Oh Myung-ok – who had previously terminated an interview with Asia Times, and who harassed foreign reporters at the protest – “is standing on the side of the Chinese Communist Party to try to persecute us.”

CAG members said that although they had tried to communicate with the visiting family members – who also demonstrated outside the CAG church in Seoul – they had been prevented from actually meeting.

CAG members hold a counter protest outside the Blue House. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

The liberal Moon administration looks unlikely to send the refugees back to almost certain punishment in China, but at the same time relies on Chinese goodwill to limit forcible returns of captured North Korean defectors – an indication of how delicate the diplomatic relationship is.

And bigger strategic games are afoot.

United vs disunited

China and Russia are postured against the US and its allies in Northeast Asia. Both were hugely irked by the establishment of a US anti-missile defense system, THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Air Defense) in 2017 in South Korea – a move that originated under Moon’s conservative predecessor. While Seoul and Washington insist the system is aimed at North Korea, Beijing and Moscow claim its radars can spy on their regional assets.

Beijing retaliated economically against South Korea, halting Chinese tour groups and hitting South Korean businesses in China. Moon, upon becoming president, managed to tamp this down, partly by placating Beijing with the promise that Seoul would never join a trilateral security alliance with Japan and the US; he also vowed not to expand the THAAD presence.

Yet, Beijing continues to complain about THAAD – and, in a dramatic new dynamic, is cooperating with Moscow in Korean skies.

Chinese aircraft have long been penetrating Japanese and South Korean Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZs) – non-binding, unilaterally established spaces. But last week, Russian aircraft escalated matters by entering South Korean sovereign air space, and prompting Seoul to scramble jets, which fired warning shots. At the same time, Chinese aircraft also penetrated South Korea’s ADIZ.

It became clear afterward that the two air forces were exercising in synchronicity: their first-ever joint, long-range air patrol in the region.

Sino-Russian military cooperation was displayed in last year’s mighty “Vostok” exercises in the Russian Far East. Last week’s aerial moves suggest that cooperation is expanding.

“Russia doesn’t really have strong designs on the Korean peninsula but their strategy and interest overlaps with China’s,” said Go Myong-hyun of Seoul’s Asan Institute. “The Chinese want to teach South Korean a lesson – maybe with the Russians being the Chinese wingmen.”

The cooperation is eased by the total non-liaison between Seoul and Tokyo, which have adjacent ADIZs. Moreover, the exercise might have aimed to drive a wedge between the two: The airspace violated was directly over an island that is garrisoned by South Korea, but is claimed by Japan in a highly emotive dispute.

“Russia and China are always happy to exploit American weaknesses, and this, I think, is why we saw their planes come into our airspace,” Lee Jong-won, a columnist and commenter, told Asia Times. “Relations with Japan are so bad … South Korea is the weak link and everyone is trying to take advantage.”

While senior US security officials toured the region over the last two weeks, closer trilateral security cooperation currently looks impossible: Ties between Northeast Asia’s two democratic neighbors are in a downward spiral, as a potentially disastrous trade war pends between Seoul and Tokyo.

Much blame must be laid at Moon’s door. Since taking power in 2017, he has prodded Tokyo with a series of actions that that the latter could not ignore.

Moon vs Abe

In the military sphere, a visiting Japanese warship was – for the first time – ordered to strike its “rising sun” ensign, and a Korean destroyer painted a Japanese aircraft with its target radar.

In the diplomatic sphere, Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have never hit it off. Moon overturned a 2015 Seoul-Tokyo agreement on the “comfort women” – and then South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese businesses to compensate forced wartime forced laborers.

Japan’s position was that the matter had been resolved in 1965, when a bilateral treaty which opened the way for Japanese firms to operate in Korea was signed – accompanied by an $800 million financial package.

“It was not just one incident, it was an accumulation of all these unnecessary altercations between South Korea and Japan that convinced Abe that there is no dealing with Moon,” Lee said.

Seoul declined an angry Tokyo’s demands to accept arbitration on the 1965 treaty. Yet, when Japan did retaliate – by imposing export restrictions on three key chemicals required for South Korea’s flagship semiconductor sector – Moon seemed caught by surprise. South Korea was left reeling.

While Abe’s retaliation appears disproportionate, Moon’s provocations look unnecessary. Traditionally, Korean politicians have played the ever-popular anti-Japan card when they need a ratings boost. Moon’s ratings have held up well, despite slowing economic growth.

Currently, Moon is benefiting politically: Amid furious anti-Japanese protests, boycotts and  media talk of pre-1945 Japanese atrocities, the opposition have had no choice but to support him. Yet, he may soon find himself overseeing a plunge in economic growth. And Moon’s government say it takes its lead from “the people” – who are educated to view Japan as uniquely villainous, in historical terms – putting it in a bind when it comes to de-escalation.

“Had the Moon government responded to this as a trade issue, it might not be in this mess, but it responded through the lens of views of history, and turned it into something political,” said Mike Breen, author of The New Koreans. “Then it got trapped by public opinion that gives it no room to maneuver. They are a bit stuck.”

Moon appears to have no counter strategy against an economy three times Korea’s size. Pleas for assistance from third parties have fallen on deaf ears. No nation took Korea’s side at last week’s WTO meeting, and the US has – despite repeated urging from South Korea visitors, most recently Seoul’s trade minister – declined to step in.

Worse may be to come. Abe’s cabinet will decide this week whether to drop Korea from a “white list” of preferred importers.

So what happens next? “There is no ‘next’ as long as Moon and Abe are in their respective offices,” said Lee. “There has to be a change of leadership in both countries for there to be any progress.”

Abe’s term ends in 2021, Moon’s in 2022.

Kim vs  Moon

More humiliation looms across the Demilitarized Zone. Inter-Korean engagement has been the centerpiece of Moon’s presidency thus far – Moon himself has held three summits with his North Korean counterpart, compared with one each for his predecessors Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, making him a more enthusiastic engager than any previous South Korean president.

However, Moon’s relationship with Kim Jong Un has stopped delivering.

While Moon visited Kim in Pyongyang last September, a promised Kim visit to Seoul in December – which would have been truly historic – never transpired for reasons that remain unexplained. North Korean state media have ridiculed Moon’s oft-repeated desire to be an intermediary between Pyongyang and Washington.

Though Moon made clear in public statements that he was willing to meet Kim before or after the latter’s failed summit with US President Donald Trump in Hanoi in February, Kim remained silent. And during their surprise encounter at the DMZ in June, it turned out to be more a Kim-Trump photo-opp than a three-way meeting of minds orchestrated by Moon.

Matters worsened dramatically last week. On July 24, Pyongyang turned down a long-proffered South Korean offer of 50,000 tons of food aid, citing upcoming South Korean-US military drills.

The following day, July 25, North Korea test-fired two two projectiles, believed to be new, short-range missiles. Referring to upcoming military drills,  state-run Korea Central News Agency said in an editorial that the test was “a solemn warning to the South Korean military warmongers who are running high fever in their moves to introduce the ultra-modern offensive weapons into South Korea and hold military exercise in defiance of the repeated warnings” from North Korea.

Kim met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok in April and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Pyongyang in June. Given the timing of the Russo-Chinese air operation on July 23, it is possible that North Korea’s moves on July 24 and 25 were linked. But that is unprovable.

For his part, Moon’s tragedy is that he leads the junior partner in the US-South Korea alliance. For North Korea, Pyongyang-Washington relations matter more than Pyongyang-Seoul relations – and now, for the first time, a North Korean leader has the ear of a US president.

Pyongyang’s bad faith looks particularly glaring in the face of Moon’s bromantic wooing of Kim.

“I think President Moon’s role has been downgraded from driver to pawn,” said Go of the Asan Institute. “The North Koreans hope for a diplomatic breakthrough with the Americans, and value the relationship with Trump, so they are using South Korea as a punching bag.”

Still, Moon may be playing the long game. “I thing Moon understands that when North Korea and the US come to disagreement, then Pyongyang only has Beijing or Seoul to turn to,” Go continued. “Pyongyang likes to play one party off against another, so I think Moon is taking his time.”

Whether Moon will pivot toward North Korea for a diplomatic win is unclear – but Kim is not his biggest challenge at present.

Taking a kicking

All South Korean eyes are on Tokyo, which this week is to make a cabinet decision on whether to strike South Korea from its white list. The monumental ruckus in South Korea was ignited by export restrictions on three chemicals; the white list names preferred importers of over 1,000 items.

“The biggest problem the president has right now is relations with Japan,” said pundit Lee. “Trying to pursue better relations with North Korea is understandable – but not at the expense of South Korean relations with Japan.”

That is probably an unpopular argument in South Korea. Still, Seoul’s current foreign policy dilemmas may be a result not only of the fiendishly complex set of geopolitical interests surrounding it but also of diplomatic inexperience and over-focus on popular sentiment.

“Thirty years ago, Korea did not have diplomatic relations with half the world – that only started to change with the collapse of communism,” said Breen. So for its first 40 years as a nation state, “South Korea was under the diplomatic wing of the Americans. It only has a generation of experience of foreign policy, and the leadership does not always have a firm sense of national self-interest – it has more of an eye on popular sentiment.”

With the US guaranteeing both Japanese and South Korean security against China and North Korea, many believe that the only way the Seoul-Tokyo situation can be resolved is via Washington’s intervention. But America has made no move yet. Until it does, South Korea’s situation may be summed up by an Internet meme doing the rounds.

A photograph shows a gang of four men kicking a fallen man on the ground. Superimposed on the kicking men are four flags – those of China, Japan, North Korean and Russia.

The helpless victim? South Korea.

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