Thaad, North Korea, and China


(Photo Source: Yonhap News)World Current Report Chief Editor Dae-Han Song met with ISC Advisor Professor Jeong-Chul Lee to gather his thoughts on the current situation of Northeast Asia as regards Thaad, China, and North Korea after South Korean President Park's 8 day visit to Russia, China, and Laos.

I just wanted to follow up with the meeting that took place on September 4th in Hangzhou. Before the G20, Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Obama met. In the meeting Xi openly opposed Thaad deployment. The US ignored the statement and talked about the maritime sovereignty and China’s human rights issues. Later when Xi met with Park, Park told her that Thaad had nothing to do with China and that it was about North Korea. Then she asked him to help her with dealing with North Korea and if the North Korean issue was resolved then there would be no need for Thaad. What is the role of multilateral gatherings such as these to come to agreements and dialogue? It doesn’t seem like Park or Obama is ceding any ground to China. Will China slowly have to come around the reality that it can pressure neither country?

As regards multilateral meetings such as Asean, Apec, and those type of conferences and this time the G20 is that bilateral meetings are totally based on diplomatic capabilities of those countries. If some countries are very active and they have that capability, then they can have many types of bilateral talks because so many presidents are there. When countries have an attractive situation, all other countries will want to have bilateral talks with them. So it is up to their context and capability. So this time South Korea wanted to have bilateral talks with China, the United States, and some other countries, but Park Geun-hye only had bilateral talks with China. Originally, China doesn’t want to have bilateral talks with South Korea. They thought there is no need to have bilateral talks with South Korea, but South Korea strongly wanted it. Because South Korea wants to recover their relationship with China.

They wanted to sugarcoat Thaad for China? Yes, but I think this time the Chinese President became a little bit upset after the bilateral talks. Because right after the bilateral talks, most of the president members visited Vientiane in Laos for the Asean meetings. At that time Park Geun-hye had a meeting with Obama. She told him that we should dispatch Thaad again. The South Korean government had wanted to recover relations with China, and had strongly pursued bilateral talks with China. China was stern about the launching of Thaad. But, when she went to Asean and met with Obama, Park announced that we should launch Thaad. So, this is a very awkward situation.

Her meeting with Putin earlier in Vladivostok had been successful. Putin didn’t mention Thaad, so Park Geun-hye told Koreans that we had recovered the relationship with Russia, that we can do the same with China." But it didn’t work. President Park’s actions had sent China an implicit message: In the case of tension between the US and China, Park would side with the US. Her second message was that Thaad is not about China and Korea but about North Korean provocations.

Is the reason why Park Geun-hye sides with the US rather than China is because the existential foundation of the conservatives in Korea is the US alliance since that’s what their staunch followers? Yes, so the US wants to support the conservative party in South Korea.

Last time we talked, you mentioned that China had discretionary economic measures against South Korea, such as impeding Chinese tourism to Korea, or unofficial sanctions. Have you seen the impact of this? These days, there are scholars that think Chinese pressure has already weakened. I don’t agree. This is the beginning of Chinese pressure on South Korea. China is still monitoring the situation of the Korean Peninsula. From now on, Chinese pressure will intensify. So next year China will place some kind of pressure such as on tourism or the machinery sector or exports.

South Korea is more and more dependent on China economically right? Yes, especially since the South Korean economy is greatly suffering, in particular after the Samsung Galaxy problem and Hyundai motors. Of course, the Chinese economy is weak also. In some cases, next year, China has many ways of pressuring South Korea in the economic realm. So, I think their pressure will be strengthened next year. However, the US won’t have any means of intervening in East Asian politics until next year July. This is the transition period between the old president and the new one. And the Assistant Secretary of East Asian Affairs won’t be assigned until July. So there will be a vacuum in East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Is that a time of opportunity or uncertainty? From a North Korean perspective, this is a good opportunity. The US won’t be pressuring them. In terms of South Koreans, especially the conservatives, this will be a period of uncertainty.

What freedom does this give North Korea? During that time, they can carry out provocative actions. Of course a US president can still act, but the key officer is the person in East Asian and Pacific Affairs and NSA member. They won't be assigned until July. So until July, there will be no concrete policy towards China, North Korea, South Korea because this assistant secretary is not assigned until then. It’s the same with the Department of Defense.

Can you talk a little bit about what is happening in North Korea at this time? In September 9th there was a 10 kiloton of TNT explosion. What should we keep an eye out for?

They are always making new tools to negotiate, to provoke, to have leverage over South Korea, to deter military hostile action, etc. But this time they showed off their capability to launching missiles and detonating nuclear bombs that are much stronger than previous ones. As I’ve mentioned before, they have a window of opportunity until July. They will make the most out of this period.

Will they become more aggressive or conciliatory? They will become more aggressive if there are no negotiations. And I think the Obama and Hillary team don’t want to negotiate with North Korea. North Korea is going to use this period to further advance their capability. So they will likely carry out several tests.

What is left for North Korea as regards missile capability? So far they’ve shown that they have a 10 Kiloton nuclear bomb. Have they shown that the warhead can be put into a missile and launched from a submarine? I think there are still a lot of steps that remain for an SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile). They haven’t yet shown off the submarine itself. Some are saying they are making a big submarine as large as a whale. They are making new submarines.

Does a larger submarine means longer time submerged and more nuclear missiles? Yes. It means that they can carry more nuclear missiles. Up to now, they have shown the ability for them to launch one SLBM. They still have many things left to prove to threaten the US.

written by Dae-Han Song (Chief Editor, World Current Report)