In July, the US Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine (SSBN) visited South Korea for the first time since 1981. Not one, but two of the 560-foot-long warships—which carried a payload of 24 long-range Trident ballistic missiles—surfaced in South Korean waters (Korea JoongAn Daily, July 24, 2023). From Washington and Seoul’s perspective, the SSBN deployment was a pointed reminder to the mercurial North Korean regime to exercise restraint, but the symbolism of the SSBN visit was not lost on China—Pyongyang’s closest ally. For all its military modernization efforts, Beijing has no effective defense against the Ohio-class sub.
That South Korea would support the deployment of the SSBNs to its territory illustrates both its concern about rising North Korean brinkmanship and newfound willingness to risk Beijing’s ire. Indeed, after three decades of stable ties anchored in economic interdependence, major changes are afoot in the South Korea-China relationship. Compared to Japan, which also counts China as its largest trading partner, South Korea has historically been less willing to stand its ground in the face of political pressure from Beijing. On the one hand, Seoul and Beijing have no major territorial disputes, but more importantly, South Korea had previously calculated that its political deference—especially on China’s “core interests” like Taiwan—would encourage Beijing to support denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) top foreign policy objective.
For many years, South Korea handled Beijing with kid gloves, irrespective of who was in the Blue House. While the left-leaning Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) is traditionally more China-friendly, it was the conservative President Park Geun-hye who attended China’s jingoistic September 2015 military parade. After a summit between Xi Jinping and Park, both leaders made a commitment to oppose any unilateral actions that could lead to tension on the Korean Peninsula. The following day, President Park joined Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin in China’s military parade. South Korea was the only US ally to attend the event (The Korea Herald, September 3, 2015).
Since then, however, the two countries have drifted apart. The catalyst for this change was Seoul’s decision to deploy the THAAD missile defense system in 2017, which China views as a security threat and South Korea deems essential for self-defense. China has repeatedly demanded that South Korea dismantle its THAAD system (Xinhua, September 21, 2017). When those demands failed to bear fruit, it resorted to sanctions against South Korea (The Korea Herald, March 8, 2017). Furthermore, both China’s imposition of a draconian national security law in Hong Kong and its mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic have hurt its reputation in South Korea (The South China Morning Post, October 20, 2020). It is against this backdrop that the ROK’s anti-China sentiment has surged to an all-time high—a development that will inevitably spill over into Seoul’s foreign policy. According to a 2021 survey conducted by SisaIN, for the first time since the ROK and the PRC normalized relations in 1992, South Koreans view China even more negatively than they do Japan (SisaIN, November 29, 2021).
China’s ruling Communist Party seems oblivious to the existential threat that South Korea feels in the face of surging missile tests by North Korea. The JoongAng Daily noted in June that it takes just two minutes for a North Korean missile to hit Seoul. According to the editorial, “South Korea is technically still at war with North Korea. The government and people must not forget that” (Yonhap News Agency, June 1, 2023).
Concluding that political appeasement and economic engagement with China have failed to pay off, South Korea is taking two significant steps: strengthening its ties with its top security partner, the US, and mending fences with its former rival, Japan. The implications of Seoul’s estrangement from Beijing could have far-reaching implications for geopolitics in the broader Indo Pacific region.
An Accelerating Unwinding
Although fundamentals in the South Korea-China relationship have been shaky for several years, it is only in the past few months that tensions between the two nations have reached an impasse. It began in April when South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol told Reuters in an interview that “the Taiwan issue is not simply an issue between China and Taiwan, but, like the issue of North Korea, it is a global issue.” Yoon’s comments came in the context of discussion about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as well as the heightened risk of a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula. In March, North Korea said it simulated a tactical nuclear missile attack on South Korea with a ballistic missile launch. Analysts say that the decision to test an air burst of a tactical nuclear weapon—which maximizes the warhead’s destructive power—represents a threat to attack major South Korean cities (The Korea Herald, March 20, 2023). Against this backdrop of escalating tensions, Yoon warned that a conflict in the Korean Peninsula would not just involve the two Koreas, rather it would culminate in “the entire Northeast Asia [turning] to ashes” (Reuters, April 19, 2023).
Chinese media and scholars reacted angrily to Yoon’s comments. In general, rather than acknowledge the basis for Seoul’s security concerns, CCP discourse accused the ROK of deliberately partnering with the US to “encircle” China (Global Times, September 8, 2022). As Sohu opined, “Yoon Suk-yeol’s remarks show that South Korea is increasingly taking the wrongful path of echoing the United States and dragging itself, step by step, into a dangerous situation” (Sohu, April 20, 2023). Sina accused Yoon of trying to bind Seoul’s foreign policy to the US even if it offends China, stating that “the lower Yoon kneels, the faster retribution will come” (Sina April 21, 2023). Yang Danzhi, a researcher at Renmin University’s National Security Research Institute, wrote that by “using the Taiwan issue to speak out against China,” the Yoon Suk-yeol administration is “following the United States strategically.” Along with Seoul’s rapprochement with Japan, “this undoubtedly shows that [South Korea] intends to join the dangerous trend of encircling China” (China.com.cn, April 26, 2023).
In a bid to pressure the Yoon administration, Beijing has tried to woo the South Korean opposition, whose conciliatory stance towards China generally fails to capture the views of median voters. According to the Pew Research Center’s June 2022 survey, 80 percent of South Koreans have an unfavorable view of China, among the highest that figure has ever been (Pew Research Center, June 29, 2022). During a meeting with DPJ leader Lee Jae-myung in early June, Chinese Ambassador to South Korea Xing Haiming urged Seoul to reject “outside interference” in its relations with China, adding that “those who bet that China will lose out [to the US] will certainly regret it later” (The South China Morning Post, June 9, 2023).
Xing’s provocative remarks resulted in him being summoned by the South Korean Foreign Ministry, which warned the ambassador that his “unreasonable and provocative remarks” could be seen as interfering in South Korea’s domestic politics. “There are diplomatic norms, and the role of an ambassador is to enhance friendship, not to spread misunderstandings,” Foreign Minister Park Jin told reporters after speaking at a forum in Seoul (Yonhap News Agency, June 9, 2023).
Anonymously citing a “key” government official, local media reported soon thereafter that South Korea was pivoting to a “hardline stance” in its relations with China following acrimonious meetings between officials from the two countries. The official said that South Korea plans to reduce its reliance on Chinese supply chains—especially battery materials—and in general de-risk from the Chinese economy (The South China Morning Post, June 13, 2013).
Fraying Economic Ties
In recent years, China has leveraged South Korea’s economic dependency to pressure Seoul into making political concessions. As a response to the installation of the THAAD missile defense system, in 2017 Beijing imposed sanctions that cost South Korea’s tourism industry an estimated $15.6 billion and devastated the Chinese branch of Korean conglomerate Lotte (The Asan Forum, May-June 2023). The company eventually withdrew from the Chinese market altogether in 2022 (The Korea Times, May 24, 2022).
China’s weaponization of economics initially appeared to achieve Beijing’s desired outcome. Shortly after taking office, then President Moon Jae-in sought to assuage China’s security concerns and get Beijing’s help with North Korea. He thus proposed the “Three Nos” policy: no additional THAAD deployment, no participation in the US’s missile defense network, and no establishment of a trilateral military alliance with the US and Japan (Hankyoreh, November 2, 2017).
Yet Moon’s hopes for Beijing to facilitate reconciliation between the two Koreas were never fulfilled. Against the backdrop of fraying relations with Washington, Beijing remained reluctant to revise its North Korea policy as it saw no strategic benefit in supporting Seoul and Washington’s denuclearization agenda. As Xi Jinping stated in a 2023 address to the National People’s Congress, “Western countries, led by the United States, have implemented all-around containment and suppression of China” (The South China Morning Post, March 7, 2023). Without its North Korean buffer, China’s vulnerability to such perceived encirclement would be much greater. At the same time, the greater the threat from Pyongyang, the more Seoul depends on US protection. It is no surprise then, that when Moon left office, relations between the two Koreas were more strained than ever.
In 2022, the effects of Northeast Asia’s shifting geopolitical winds on the South Korea-China economic relationship finally became apparent. South Korea exported more to the US last year than China for the first time since 2004. Buoyed by strong demand for Korean cars from American consumers, Korea’s exports to the US jumped 22 percent to $139.3 billion, while its exports to China fell about 10 percent to $123.2 billion due to weak semiconductor demand. Moreover, given China’s insistence on subsidizing domestic industry as part of its “Made in China 2025” industrial plan, its imports of Korean machinery and precision tools have fallen sharply in recent years (The Korea Economic Daily, June 22, 2023). “Many Chinese businesses are manufacturing intermediate goods, which we mainly export,” Bank of Korea Governor Rhee Chang-yong told lawmakers in May. “The decade-long support from the Chinese economic boom has disappeared” (The Korea Economic Daily, May 22, 2023).
Rapprochement With Japan
Ironically, as South Korea’s relations with China fray, its ties with Japan are improving dramatically. Although President Yoon vowed to boost ties with Tokyo on the campaign trail, it is easier said than done given the resistance of the Japan-skeptical DPJ. South Korea’s opposition has tried to sabotage Yoon’s efforts. After Yoon’s breakthrough summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kushida in March, DPJ leader Lee Jae-myung said it was “the most humiliating moment” in his country’s diplomatic history (Yonhap News Agency, March, 17, 2023).
Nonetheless, the rising North Korean threat—a common security concern for Tokyo and Seoul—has made the ROK-Japan rapprochement possible despite reservations from the South Korean public (The Japan Times, March 11, 2023). Japan said in late May that it would destroy any North Korean projectile that fell in its territory after Pyongyang warned of a satellite launch (The Asahi Shimbun, May 29, 2023). At the Shangri-Li Dialogue in June, the Japanese and South Korean defense ministers highlighted the importance of bolstering bilateral ties as a way of countering North Korea in their respective plenary speeches. On the event’s sidelines, the Japanese and Korean defense ministers, along with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, agreed to sync their respective missile warning data sharing systems to better track North Korean missiles (KBS World, June 3, 2023).
The trilateral security cooperation particularly rankles China. Prior to Yoon’s March visit to Japan, the Communist Party tabloid Global Times said that the purpose of the visit was “simply to discuss how to form an ironclad trilateral security alliance with the United States to better manipulate the situation on the Korean Peninsula and suppress China” (163.com, March 10, 2023). Yao Zeyu, a scholar at the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) affiliated with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says that the moves of the US, South Korea and Japan “are not conducive to promoting the peace process on the Korean Peninsula and will instead reduce opportunities for all parties to cooperate and coordinate on the North Korean nuclear issue.” When addressing the Taiwan issue, she was even less charitable, stating “What deserves even more vigilance is that the US, together with Japan and South Korea, have openly meddled in the Taiwan issue, challenged China’s red line, and raised tension in the Taiwan Strait” (CIIS, May 16, 2023).
At present, there are signs that both South Korea and China want to prevent bilateral relations from deteriorating further. In late June, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said that Seoul would continue to “strengthen strategic communication to promote friendship between South Korea and China” despite the tense state of bilateral ties. Park added that he supported the view that Beijing can play a positive role in addressing the North Korean nuclear issue (Yonhap News, June 25, 2023). For its part, Beijing has responded cautiously. In an editorial, the Global Times said, “Regardless of the reason, having the willingness to improve relations is always better than exchanging harsh words, but ultimately it depends on the actions of South Korea” (Global Times, June 27, 2023).
Economic ties, meanwhile, remain significant even if they are no longer a catalyst for deepening the bilateral relationship. According to China, at a recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Detroit, the Chinese commerce minister and South Korea’s trade minister agreed to strengthen cooperation in semiconductor supply chains. Notably, South Korea has not confirmed such an agreement (The South China Morning Post, May 27, 2023).
Yet given Seoul’s and Beijing’s diverging security concerns, their bilateral relationship will likely increasingly resemble the Sino-Japanese relationship—substantial two-way trade, but with selective de-risking and irreconcilable geopolitical differences. Like Japan did a decade ago amid tension over the East China Sea islands, South Korea will deem its national security more important than any economic benefits derived from appeasing Beijing. The key difference for South Korea is that its primary security concern is North Korea, and China is a distant second—namely in the context of the Taiwan Strait. For Japan, China is the top concern, and North Korea second. Although the focus of US-South Korea-Japan trilateral security cooperation will be North Korea, the possibility of the allies coordinating on Taiwan cannot be ruled out—and will increase if Beijing ratchets up military pressure on the self-governed island democracy.
Although South Korea might have once been seen as the “weak link” among the US’s treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific—often regarded as the country most susceptible to China’s economic coercion—a gradual paradigm shift is underway in Seoul. The ROK, US, and Japan are uniting to meet the threat from China and North Korea’s strategic alignment. As its old comrade-in-arms from the Korean War, the PRC still maintains a mutual defense treaty with North Korea to this day. Rather than acknowledge its persistent role in enabling the rogue North Korean regime—and alienating Seoul—Beijing will likely continue to interpret the US-South Korea-Japan trilateral security cooperation as “suppression and containment of China.”