South Korea’s Middle-Power Diplomacy

BEIJING – Last week, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, despite the opposition of her country’s closest ally, the United States, stood together with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Tiananmen Square to watch the military parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of World War II’s end in Asia. The decision provided the most visible image yet of an emerging China-South Korea concert, one that China believes may prevent the region from sliding into cold war.

The region’s other major actors – the US, Japan, and even North Korea – look upon this blossoming friendship with considerable dread. The US worries that China is driving a wedge between its strongest Asian allies, South Korea and Japan, undermining America’s capacity to offset China’s rising military power.

Likewise, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is concerned that his country’s closest neighbor is drifting into China’s orbit. And, indeed, Park has consistently spurned Abe by refusing to hold a bilateral summit with him, in protest over Japan’s alleged historical revisionism, particularly with regard to the Korean “comfort women” who served as sex slaves for the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII.

For North Korea – which already has to contend with South Korea’s alliance with the US, including seemingly endless joint military exercises – the South’s budding friendship with China, the North’s longtime ally, probably seems even more threatening. That may explain why just a few hours after Park’s trip to China was announced, the Koreas traded artillery fire. Fortunately, the two sides quickly reached a deal – probably brokered by China – to end the military standoff.