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Politics

South Korea bids to close rift with China

With Beijing trip, Moon seeks BRI role and an easing of North Korea tensions

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Berlin in July.   © Yonhap/Kyodo

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is today starting a four-day state visit to China that could be a major opportunity to improve strained bilateral relations amid intense concern about North Korea's nuclear program.

Tensions over North Korea will top the agenda. Both sides are hoping to deescalate tensions with North Korea, but they have different ideas for how that might be accomplished. Beijing has proposed that both North Korea's weapons program and joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises are halted. Seoul has so far rejected that "freeze for freeze" deal, along with the U.S.

The atmosphere between Beijing and Seoul has been poisoned for months by China's opposition to the deployment of U.S. anti-missile systems in South Korea. But with both sides agreeing to restore relations, economic cooperation could receive much-needed attention. In recent years, Seoul's willingness to join China's economic initiatives, including the Belt and Road and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, has yielded few rewards.

South Korea has embraced China's economic efforts as much out of necessity as choice. Often described as a "shrimp caught between two whales," South Korea's geography starkly limits its options. Meanwhile, North Korea blocks South Korea's overland access to a Eurasian supercontinent that is connecting through new roads, railways and other infrastructure -- many backed by Beijing. As the rest of the region moves forward with new connectivity initiatives, South Korea is a prisoner of geography, boxed-in from the north, east and west.

Breaking free

Moon aims to break free of those confines with an ambitious economic vision for the region that is still emerging. It is a two-part approach with northern and southern components. Neither effort is likely to produce major short-term rewards, but with considerable ingenuity and good fortune, the long-term effects could be transformative. Call it a Moon-shot.

The first part of Moon's vision, the "New Northern Policy," looks beyond North Korea and aims to deepen connections around it. A presidential committee is working develop the policy, and public statements suggest a primary focus on Russia. During a visit to Russia in September, Moon proposed building "nine bridges," or joint-activities covering "gas, railways, ports, electric power, Arctic routes, shipbuilding, jobs, agriculture, and fisheries." But even in Russia's Far East, South Korea cannot escape China and Japan, which have each proposed competing activities for the region.

In style and substance, this approach echoes past policies. In 1988, South Korean President Roh Tae-woo proposed a "Northern Policy" that sought, among other things, to diversify trade partners and improve relations with Russia and China. More recently, in 2013, South Korean President Park Geun-hye proposed the Eurasia Initiative, an expansive proposal that proposed developing Arctic shipping lanes and improving access to trans-Eurasian railway networks, among other things. The New Northern Policy is likely to retain an interest in these areas, given the limited hand that geography has dealt South Korea.

But Moon's New Northern Policy is not without novelty. It could include what some have called the "Asian Super Grid," a Softbank-backed proposal to establish a power transmission network spanning some of Asia's major economies, including South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and Mongolia. Ultra-high voltage technology would be used to minimize lost power as it travels hundreds of kilometers between countries, including through an undersea cable between China and South Korea. Versions of this technology are already used in China. Ultimately, like many multilateral efforts, the greatest challenge may be as much political as technical.

The second part of Moon's vision is the "New Southern Policy," which he previewed during his trip to Indonesia last month. Like its northern twin, this approach aims to integrate South Korea with its neighbors. It includes six pillars that seek to deepen and broaden South Korea's connections with the economies of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in infrastructure, energy, tourism and other areas. During Moon's visit, South Korea and Indonesia signed an agreement to develop Jakarta's light rail transit system, a potential boon for South Korean companies. But here, too, South Korea will face intense competition from Japan and China, which are already dueling for infrastructure contracts in the same market.

Specific projects 

Moon's trip to Beijing could complement these efforts, but that will require moving beyond general rhetoric about cooperation and toward advancing specific projects. Despite joining the BRI, South Korea does not have a single project under the initiative to show. Beijing will be eager to issue a joint statement about "linking" South Korea's policies with the BRI. Expressions of "complementarity" were made in Moon's predecessor's time, but political events within Korea and between Korea and China paralyzed economic cooperation. Both sides would benefit from concentrating on a few specific flagship projects.

There is a compelling economic logic to South Korea deepening and diversifying its regional connections, but two obstacles stand in the way. The first is North Korea, and the potential for today's simmering crisis to boil over. The exact outcome of a conflict is unknown, depending on many variables. But as Barry Posen and other experts have underscored, the economic and human costs would be high.

The second obstacle is South Korea's desire to preserve its security alliance with the U.S. while deepening its economic relationship with Beijing. Some policymakers worry that China could use its economic influence to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. This might even help explain why Moon is charting a two-part approach, diversifying relationships to avoid an overreliance on Beijing.

As Moon's regional vision comes into focus, its most profound implications could be long term.

The benefits of deeper regional integration may even extend beyond economics. South Korean policymakers can draw inspiration from examples like the European Coal and Steel Community, which despite the European Union's recent struggles, has helped turn historical enemies into economic partners. If North Korea ever rejoins the global economy, unlikely as that seems today, its transition could be smoothed by the existence of a more integrated neighborhood.

There are, of course, major limitations to that example. Perhaps the biggest is that European powers went to war twice during the last century and brought the world with them. With tensions high on the Korean Peninsula, the hope is that conflict is not a necessary precursor for deeper integration. Big ambitions seem appropriate given the stakes. If Moon's vision can loosen South Korea's geographic shackles, it may also help bend the arc of history.

Jonathan Hillman is director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Find him on Twitter @HillmanJE.

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