TOKYO -- The strained ties between the U.S. and South Korea can be likened to a couple going through a particularly rocky stretch, in which a slight misstep could lead to a seriously damaged relationship. Both are trying to hide their anger and unhappiness in the hope of eventually patching things up.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Joe Biden will have an opportunity to do just that on May 21 when Moon visits the White House. The summit comes with Washington growing concerned about a force that is threatening its alliance with South Korea, namely China, and with Seoul walking a tightrope between the battling hegemons.
South Korea has a long-established mutual defense treaty with the U.S. under which South Korean military personnel would be under U.S. command in the event of a new Korean War. But Seoul has so far refused to join U.S.-led efforts to promote its Free and Open Indo-Pacific, better known as the Quad, a loose alliance of the U.S., Japan, India and Australia. South Korea says it does not take part in any "regional talks that exclude a specific state," an obvious reference to China.
The key to deciphering current Sino-Korean relations starts about four years ago.
On Oct. 30, 2017, in the South Korean parliament, then-Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha outlined three principles for security: no additional deployment of the U.S. missile system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad; no participation in a U.S.-led regional missile defense system; and no morphing a trilateral security alliance with the U.S. and Japan into a military alliance.
These "three noes" were worked out with China over three months. Kang made these remarks in response to a question posed by a ruling party lawmaker known as a pro-China politician, who had visited China immediately before the parliamentary session.
At that time, the administration of President Moon Jae-in was struggling to mend his country's relations with China, which had been badly damaged by a Thaad deployment in South Korea the same year to defend against a ballistic missile attack from North Korea.
The deployment infuriated Beijing, which saw Thaad as a threat to its own security and which prompted retaliation in the form of informal sanctions across a range of industries to hurt the South Korean economy, which is heavily dependent on China. Chinese who once thronged popular tourist destinations in South Korea suddenly disappeared.
Beijing also focused a great deal of ire on the huge South Korean conglomerate Lotte, which had transferred land to the government for the Thaad deployment. As a result, Lotte was forced to shut down 90% of its supermarkets in China. Beijing's swift and harsh response delivered a severe blow to the South Korean economy.
Kang's reference to the "three noes" appeared to signal a sudden and unexpected policy shift made by the Moon administration, but was in fact a well-orchestrated move. The following day, Beijing announced an agreement with South Korea to "normalize" economic relations. During a subsequent news conference, a Chinese government spokesman referred to the "three noes" policy and advised Seoul to match words with actions.
South Korean media welcomed the move as an "escape from the tunnel" after 16 months of suffering under economic sanctions. But the "three noes" policy -- especially the pledge to avoid a trilateral military pact with the U.S. and Japan -- had major ramifications on South Korea's foreign and security policies.
Security heads were concerned that Beijing might interpret this "no" as ironclad and use it to pressure Seoul. Showing this face to the Chinese would jeopardize relations with Japan and the U.S., they warned.
Apparently, China really does want to play this card. After U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga met on April 16, the Global Times, a tabloid affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party, argued in an editorial that the U.S.-Japan alliance is becoming "the axis of endangering peace" in the Asia-Pacific region. "The U.S.-Japan alliance could evolve into an axis that can bring fatal disruption to Asia-Pacific peace, just like the Germany-Italy-Japan axis alliance before and during World War II," it said.
The piece served as a warning to the Moon administration, which finds itself grappling with the consequences of its promise to Beijing four years ago.
A number of historical factors are at play here. Many on the Korean Peninsula feel closely connected to Chinese civilization and are proud of being Sojunghwa, or "Little China." This has imbued them with the urge to identify with the dominant power on the continent.
Every left-leaning administration that has ruled South Korea has flirted with the idea of being the regional power broker, using diplomacy to strike a balance between majors like the U.S., China, Japan, and Russia.
In fact, soon after the "three noes" agreement with China in 2017, President Moon said in an interview that Seoul would pursue "balanced diplomacy by deepening further its relations with China while placing importance on its relationship with the U.S."
Moon Chung-in, who served as special presidential adviser for unification, foreign affairs and national security until February, stressed the importance of maintaining good relationships with all countries. In an interview with the Asahi Shimbun published April 11, Moon described what he called "transcendental foreign policy."
The U.S. and South Korea signed a mutual defense treaty in October 1953, about two months after signing an armistice that brought an end to Korean War hostilities, forming a de facto military alliance. Since then South Korea's military would be under U.S. command in case of a security crisis on the peninsula.
After North Korea invaded the South in 1950, United Nations Command, the U.S.-led multinational military force to support South Korea, was established. United Nations Command-Rear, which is under the UNC, is headquartered in Japan. Under this framework, U.S., Japanese, and South Korean troops would need to closely coordinate operations during a security emergency on the Korean Peninsula.
From this point of view, South Korea might be compelled to join the Indo-Pacific strategy and Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) regional security frameworks.
Nobukatsu Kanehara, who served as assistant chief cabinet secretary to former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe from 2012 to 2019, has told Nikkei that it is vital to draw South Korea -- a democracy and major military power with 600,000 troops -- into the "Quad plus alpha."
But the reality appears to be the opposite. Washington and Seoul canceled biannual joint military exercises for the third year in a row, and not just because of COVID-19. The decision reflects the Moon administration's reluctance to take any action that could provoke North Korea.
Ultimately, however, this could affect the countries' readiness to respond to emergencies, since U.S. troops in South Korea are regularly rotated. According to a senior Japanese Self-Defense Forces officer, this inevitably undermines the operational abilities of U.S. forces in South Korea to deal with a crisis. The other two "noes" Seoul has promised to Beijing could also weaken the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
The governments are now accelerating preparations for Moon's visit to the U.S. So far, Washington has been handling the Moon administration "with kid gloves," noted a U.S. political scientist. But the radical changes in East Asia's security environment in recent years have sharply reduced room for Washington to give Seoul special treatment.
Biden is certain to press Moon to start acting as a U.S. ally, while Seoul is steeling itself for some tough diplomatic tests that carry huge implications.