As if the world didn’t have enough problems, North Korea seems to be gearing up to add a few more. According to the New York Times, commercial satellite imagery has confirmed that Pyongyang recently upgraded its main satellite launching facility, which will enable it to test an intercontinental missile. Pyongyang has been unusually quiet in recent months, which makes the world all the more nervous as it awaits North Korea’s 4th nuclear test and probable ICBM test.

All this follows a deliberate, high-profile Chinese snub of North Korea; in July, Xi Jinping, China’s president, cozied up to South Korea to underscore Beijing’s dissatisfaction with North Korea. This diplomatic gambit scored points in Seoul and sparked anger in Pyongyang. But that isn’t the end of the story. If North Korea does conduct another test, the spotlight would land on Beijing — North Korea’s chief enabler. And therein lies the long-term dilemma in Chinese–South Korean relations.

Although South Korean angst and anger over Japan’s continual flirtation with revising its bitter history with Korea is topic A in Seoul, it may ultimately rate a distant second compared with the longer-term problem in Northeast Asia: Korean apprehension about China’s role when it comes to the future of the Korean Peninsula. The Koreas have a long and troubled history with China. Beijing invaded the Korean kingdoms several hundred times, but (apart from the Korean War) not since the fourteenth century. In a speech delivered during his July visit to Seoul, Xi emphasized Chinese cooperation with Korea against Japan. These days, China is the chief enabler of North Korea via food, fuel, and investment; for most of this century, it has been North Korea’s number one trading partner. That support both ensures the perpetration of a divided Korea and helps China maintain a buffer between itself and U.S.-allied South Korea.

At the same time, however, Beijing is South Korea’s largest trading partner, and so Seoul consciously seeks to balance between the United States, which ensures its security, and China, which has become increasingly important to its economy. South Korean officials’ great fear is that if they get on the wrong side of China, China will interfere with Korean reunification, perhaps backing a pro-China faction in North Korea or even occupying the country should Pyongyang’s Kim Jong Un regime collapse.

Those apprehensions help explain Seoul’s subdued response to Beijing’s decision to block a UN Security Council resolution condemning North Korea for sinking a South Korean ship, the Cheonan, in 2010. It also looked the other way when China failed to condemn Pyongyang for shelling South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island the same year. Similarly, South Korea did not balk when Beijing rejected a devastating UN report on human rights conditions in North Korea earlier this year.

For its part, the United States sees Korean-Japan discord and persistent Chinese efforts to cultivate Seoul as another obstacle to allied harmony. But more than lingering historical tensions with Japan, South Korea’s careful deference to China may be the ultimate source of the cooperation deficit — and a knotty complication for U.S. security strategy in East Asia that Washington has only limited ability to address. To his credit, U.S. President Barack Obama used his April trip to Asia for a trilateral summit that has injected some modest but positive momentum into South Korean­­–Japanese and trilateral relations.

ANXIOUS ALLIES

Seoul’s Sinophobia may have serious strategic costs for the United States. For example, for fear of displeasing its neighbor, South Korea has limited its missile defense program to mostly short-range technology. Certainly, North Korea’s short-range missiles are a real threat to Seoul, and South Korean officials say that their missile defense system will be “interoperable” with that of the United States. But interoperability may be of limited value. It means that South Korea could choose to link to the U.S. system, which is not the same as integration, in which its computer networks would automatically detect and react if North Korea launched one of its medium- or longer-range missiles. Mere interoperability would not have that capability. Seoul would not be able to detect an incoming missile looking head-on, and there would not be enough warning time to connect to U.S. radars in Japan (which would likely see the missile from a side angle much earlier) in order to shoot the missile down.

This problem would be remedied if South Korea were networked into the U.S.-Japanese radar system, in which case radar sharing would happen automatically and in plenty of time to interdict a North Korean missile. South Korea might hesitate to make such a move for fear of provoking China, but U.S. missile defense programs are designed for countering small-missile powers such as North Korea and Iran. They are not able to threaten China’s second-strike capabilities, and budgetary and technical obstacles would likely prevent the United States from developing such capabilities in any case. Nonetheless, many in South Korea fear that China would see U.S.–South Korean­­–Japanese cooperation as part of a containment strategy and so are reluctant to pursue it, even though a tripartite network would better safeguard all three from a North Korean threat.

Not helping matters is that such cooperation would also involve a change in interpretation of the Japanese constitution to allow for collective self-defense. Currently, if a missile were headed toward South Korea, Japan would not be able to shoot it down. That will change now that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been able to secure a reinterpretation of the Japanese constitution to permit collective self-defense. There is widespread (and displaced) discomfort in Seoul with this modest shift in Japanese national security policy. But Japan’s pacifist culture and strong public skepticism of Abe’s reinterpretation (some polls say 50 percent or more oppose the move) will likely ensure that careful limits are placed on Japan’s military.

Beyond missile systems, South Korea also treads softly with China when it comes to Korean reunification. In a major speech on the topic in Dresden last March, South Korean President Park Geun-hye presented some innovative ideas in regard to North Korea — including investments and other steps toward gradual reunification — but made no mention of China. That is precisely because Seoul believes that China fears increased U.S.-Japanese–South Korean trilateral collaboration as part of a containment strategy and would somehow block reunification or otherwise punish Seoul.  Never mind the large degree of Chinese culpability for propping up Pyongyang and the legitimate missile threat that South Korea seeks to defend itself against.

South Korea seriously underestimates its leverage with China in the event of instability that leads to the collapse of the Kim regime or a negotiated effort to reunify Korea. The last thing Beijing wants is a unified Korea that is allied with the United States. But if China took steps to impede unification, it could cause exactly that, pushing Seoul ever closer to Washington.

Unfortunately, China has resisted holding a serious dialogue about the future of the Korean Peninsula with either Washington or Seoul, for fear of it leaking to the press and revealing to the Kim regime that Beijing is not particularly confident about its future. Yet China, South Korea, and the United States have many shared interests in the event of a North Korean collapse — all would want to corral North Korean nukes and missiles and manage refugee flows — and those issues are worth discussing.

The differences among the three countries also warrant discussion. Recent polling data from Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies showed that 83 percent of Koreans believed that an alliance with the United States would be important even after reunification. But China believes that such a relationship would entail thousands of U.S. troops along its border on the Yalu River. Those fears are unfounded. In the event of unification, both Seoul and Washington would almost certainly rethink their alliance and scale back, if not withdraw, most of the 28,000 U.S. forces stationed in Korea. And that is exactly the sort of issue that a serious dialogue with China about North Korea could address. But China’s reticence both prevents any open communication and reinforces its narrative of being a victim of U.S. containment.

UNHELPFUL HISTORY

Of course, this brings us back to Japan’s flirting with the revision of World War II history, which not only detracts from the Abe administration’s otherwise thoughtful, proactive strategic agenda, but also distracts from and complicates efforts to address real concerns such as the North Korean threat. Each visit to the Yasukuni Shrine — each expression of disbelief from some Japanese official over the use of comfort women by the Japanese military in the 1930s — reopens wounds in the South Korean psyche and reinforces anti-Japanese nationalism in China. Such Japanese behavior also makes Seoul more susceptible to Chinese enticements, which limits the United States’ ability to drive trilateral relations.

All the more reason for Japan to put history to rest, especially as the world approaches the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2015. Park has made clear that some modest steps by Abe in regard to the comfort women issue would enable her to end the downward spiral in South Korean­–Japanese relations and begin to forge closer trilateral U.S.­–South Korean­–Japanese ties. The United States can press Japan to resolve these issues, but they are really Japanese domestic political questions, so Japan must take the lead. If it does, South Korea would lose the distraction of its troubled history with Japan and have to focus more squarely on the real dilemmas it is facing with China and North Korea, dilemmas that may shape the future contours of Northeast Asia.

By ROBERT A. MANNING October 3, 2014 in Foreign Policy