Intelligence: South Korea contemplates pivot to China to curtail Pyongyang

Report: Written by Mauro Orrù. 

South Korea and Japan signed the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) today to facilitate direct intelligence sharing in light of North Korea’s nuclear advancements and sabre-rattling. 


The deal collapsed in 2012 just before signatures were to be delivered. Anti-Japanese sentiment in the ROK – the Republic Of Korea – prompted Seoul to pull out of negotiations with Tokyo, accused of forcing Korean women into sexual servitude during its occupation of the peninsula between 1910 and 1945. Now that the ‘comfort women’ dispute has largely been settled, South Korea seems to have digested the acrimony for its former colonial master and is set to co-operate with Japan in tackling a common threat: Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions. But Seoul’s pragmatism might soon come to a standstill. In a surprising show of confidence and optimism, officials announced that they also want to get China on board.

While striking a deal with Japan may have taken scant diplomatic efforts, the ROK will have to completely rethink its strategy and network of alliances in the region if it ever hopes to grab Beijing by the eye. In fact, China has ignored all requests to share its intelligence on North Korea since 2012, when Seoul first approached Beijing. This summer, South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye gave the US the go-ahead to install the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system near its border with North Korea, the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). The complex set of machinery and radars, likely to be deployed in the next 8-10 months, is able to detect and neutralise missiles fired from the DPRK against South Korea but China worries it can also detect activity within its own border. This alone is sure to stymie all negotiations with Beijing.

Aidan Foster-Carter, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Leeds University, told The Conflict Comment: “I can’t see anything substantial going down that pipeline,” adding that it is “totally impossible because of inhibitions from both sides.” So, why does South Korea want to approach China when failure is so painfully obvious? James Schoff, Senior Associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, claims that Park’s outreach is a mere “diplomatic gesture” to alienate suspicions that Seoul is “giving Japan any special favours and to counter possible Chinese arguments that it is teaming up with Japan and the US to gang up on China and North Korea,” Mr Schoff told The Conflict Comment.

Japan’s involvement in a GSOMIA with South Korea is a deterrent per se. Longstanding territorial disputes over uninhibited islands and minor atolls in the South China Sea – known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan – fuelled centuries-old antagonism between Beijing and Tokyo. Following its victory in the 1895 Sino-Japanese war and the subsequent downfall of the Qing dynasty, Japan assumed de facto control of the islands until its overwhelming defeat in World War II. Under US administration for 27 years, the islands returned to Japan only in 1972 when China began to assert its sovereignty.

Claims that went largely unheeded for decades – coupled with Beijing’s brazen military expansionism – morphed into the most prominent conundrum of the South China Sea. Beijing’s efforts to establish itself as commander-in-chief of the region were such that in 2013 it requested all aircraft hovering its new ‘possessions’ to alert Chinese air traffic authorities – a condition which Tokyo and Washington repudiated. Furthermore, Japan’s concession to the US to operate a number of military bases on its territory is yet another headache for Beijing, whose hegemonic ambitions clash with Washington’s monitoring of the region.

At the end of December 2014, Seoul and Tokyo signed a memorandum of understanding to exchange military information on North Korea. The deal, however, did not allow the two governments to share intelligence directly, but only through the US. Following North Korea’s fifth underground nuclear test on September 9, having to channel data through a third party was a great limitation for Seoul and Tokyo that hastened the need to finalise the GSOMIA. But Robert Kelly, Professor of Political Science at Pusan National University, believes that for President Park the prominence of Chinese co-operation eclipses the Japanese deal. “China hasn’t responded well, but she realises, correctly, that the road to Pyongyang runs through Beijing.”

China is North Korea’s closest partner. It accounts for 90 percent of its trade and is willing to repatriate defectors sneaking through the common border. But in light of Pyongyang’s advancements in nuclear warfare, China has shied away from implementing sanctions against its neighbour of which the UN Security Council imposed countless rounds in the last few years. Beijing worries that observance of the resolutions could spell the end of Kim Jong-un’s regime and spark a humanitarian crisis in proximity of its own border. However, the Xi administration has harshly criticised the North’s missile tests in recent months, dismissing them as unnecessary and provocative since Pyongyang’s nuclear adventurism provides the UN Security Council with a justification to lecture China for its reluctance to curb the regime.

Another theory is that the ROK is laying the red carpet to secure a back-up alliance with Beijing should the US curtail its involvement in the peninsula. Following Donald Trump’s spectacular conquest of The White House on November 8, South Korea’s National Security Council convened to assess how US-ROK bilateral policy on North Korea might evolve under the Republican President-elect. During his campaign, the tycoon threatened to pull out the 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea unless it agreed to pay more than $870m, 40% of annual costs. But to lawmakers’ relief and astonishment, Trump reassured Ms Park the US would remain committed to working with The Blue House in tackling Pyongyang’s growing assertiveness. Thus, South Korean officials may be looking at China as a precaution given that Trump’s proclivity for inconsistent claims makes it virtually impossible to predict how the US will operate once he takes office on January 20.

Jeffrey Ordaniel, Research Fellow at the Pacific Forum-Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes that forging an agreement with China could serve two purposes: “First, it could reassure Beijing that it remains an important security partner for South Korea, especially in the midst of the two countries’ souring relationship brought about by Seoul’s decision to allow THAAD deployment,” Mr Ordaniel told The Conflict Comment, adding that the desire to push for a deal at a time of strained diplomatic ties indicates that the Park administration sincerely hopes to succeed. Second, “a GSOMIA with Beijing, along with Tokyo, means that Seoul would have intelligence-sharing mechanisms with all of North Korea’s immediate and most important neighbours,” including Russia, who also voiced concerns about THAAD.

Indeed, Russia and the ROK reached an agreement in 2001. But how did Seoul manage to persuade such a fervent critic of the US to share intelligence with one of its allies when prospects to entice China are extremely dim? One culprit is geography: “China’s centres of power are within range of THAAD’s surveillance capabilities. The Chinese perception is still being dominated by the idea that American THAAD could target Chinese national security interests in addition to the view of some in China that the deployment is yet another attempt to contain China’s rise to power,” Mr Ordaniel said, stressing that Russia’s criticism of the technology is simply based on the principle that Putin dislikes America’s expansionism.

Under the Obama administration, South Korea has served as a proxy for the US to safeguard its own interests in the region. Kevin Gray, reader of international relations at the University of Sussex, said that “US strategic aims [in East Asia] have always been held back as a result of the legacies of the post-war regional settlement and the manner in which US hegemony is based on bilateral relations with countries in the region.” Despite Trump’s scaremongering in the last few months of campaigning to withdraw support, his recent message to President Park suggests that, for once, facts might prevail over feelings. “We may see some backtracking on this given the role that military bases in South Korea play in the US’s broader China strategy,” Mr Gray told The Conflict Comment.

However, the unpredictability that comes with a Trump presidency has the potential to upend the geopolitical order in the whole of East Asia. Mr Kelly said: “Trump is such erratic in his policy pronouncements, and lies so frequently about so much, that it is impossible to tell what he really thinks about Korea.” Mr Schoff believes that “deterrence” practices such as the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle military drills – which the US and the ROK conduct on an annual basis – “will continue at the recent pace,” hinting that “reduced US involvement is possible but not likely in the short term. Host Nation Support renewal will be discussed in 2017, and that is a real test.”

As US foreign policy risks an isolationist turn and Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities gain momentum, South Korea is confronted with a shortage of partners. But for all the optimism and hopes South Korea has put into Beijing, Park will have to accept that her pivot to China is deluded.

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