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  • Between a Rock and a Hard Place:South Korea’s Strategic Dilemmas with China and the United States
  • Ellen Kim (bio) and Victor Cha (bio)

south korea, china, united states, strategy, entrapment

[End Page 101]

executive summary

This essay examines four strategic dilemmas that the Republic of Korea (ROK) faces vis-à-vis China and discusses their implications for regional and U.S.-ROK relations.

main argument

The current bilateral relationship between China and South Korea is the best in the two nations’ modern histories. It is not clear, however, whether the current positive trajectory can be sustained into the future, given the recurring fluctuations in South Korea’s policy toward China. This dynamic results from four strategic dilemmas that South Korea faces in dealing with China: dilemmas over power, economics, North Korea, and entrapment in the U.S. alliance. Recent developments in Sino-ROK relations have led to new opportunities for greater bilateral cooperation but also have important implications for regional relations. In the triangular context of the U.S.-ROK-China relationship, South Korea’s closeness with China has not come at the expense of a diminished relationship with the U.S. This demonstrates that its bilateral relationships with China and the U.S. may not be mutually exclusive but could achieve positive-sum gains. Nevertheless, South Korea still faces significant challenges in managing relations with both countries.

policy implications

  • • Understanding South Korea’s strategic dilemmas vis-à-vis China is critical for the U.S. in order to successfully manage its alliance with the ROK. The two allies must address a misalignment of their policy priorities regarding China and determine how to sustain a coordinated, if not common, strategy.

  • • The U.S. must recognize that South Korea’s outreach toward China is not construed as alliance dissonance. Seoul’s active engagement with Beijing can be a strategic opportunity to influence China to adhere to global norms and behave as a responsible stakeholder.

  • • South Korea’s relationships with the U.S. and China need not be a zero-sum game or mutually exclusive. A deep alliance with the U.S. actually strengthens South Korea’s position as it deals with China, but only if Seoul resists Beijing’s efforts to demarcate the scope of its alliance with Washington. [End Page 102]

On September 2, 2015, South Korean president Park Geun-hye visited Beijing upon invitation by Chinese president Xi Jinping to attend the country’s celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Joined by Russian president Vladimir Putin and other foreign guests, Presidents Park and Xi watched a massive military parade at Tiananmen Gate. Absent from the celebration was the current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Ironically, 61 years ago it was Mao Zedong and Kim Il-sung, founding fathers of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and North Korea, respectively, who were standing together in the same place to see a military review. Perhaps nothing can better illustrate the current state of affairs in China’s relations with the two Koreas than a juxtaposition of these two contrasting images.

The bilateral relationship between the Republic of Korea (ROK) and China under the current Park and Xi governments is undeniably at its strongest point in modern history, with a series of efforts underway to consolidate and institutionalize their strategic partnership. The first summit between the two leaders in June 2013 led to the establishment of four strategic communication channels to regularize high-level strategic dialogues. Both countries also pledged to move forward on their previous agreement to set up a military hotline between their defense ministers. With respect to the economic relationship, the two countries signed the China-Korea Free Trade Agreement and agreed to establish a direct trading market for the Chinese yuan and Korean won to further boost bilateral trade. All these measures are indicative of a new level of bilateral cooperation unprecedented in the modern history of Sino-ROK relations.

Nonetheless, South Korea’s relations with China remain complex, and it appears unclear whether the current positive dynamic in the relationship will or can be sustained into the future, given a pattern of recurring fluctuations in South Korea’s...


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