China and the World

Caught between superpowers

Seoul’s President Park had big problems – even before Trump got elected


Under fire: South Korean President Park Geun-hye

Visitors from Korea were one of many Asian delegations that – for many centuries – prostrated themselves at the Chinese imperial court. And South Korea’s largest company Samsung Electronics appeared to adopt a modern-day version of the pose at a recent dinner in Shijiazhuang in Hebei province, where its executives were photographed kneeling en masse in front of their Chinese distributors. The company says its staff made a spontaneous decision to demonstrate their gratitude to their Chinese partners for standing by their products during the Galaxy Note 7 debacle. As we reported in WiC343, Chinese consumers have been feeling sensitive about Samsung after it failed to include their market in the initial list of recalls for its exploding smartphones. Many concluded that they were being treated differently from the rest of the world.

On the political front the mood is also a little fraught, with Beijing annoyed by Seoul’s decision to deploy America’s Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD).

As we reported in WiC316, the South Koreans have justified the move as a protection from North Korea’s wayward leader Kim Jong-un. Since he took power in 2011, Kim has conducted more than twice as many missile tests as his father did in his 18-year reign. Earlier this year, the hermit kingdom also launched its first ballistic missile from a submarine and experts believe it is close to firing an intermediate-range one.

China objects to the THAAD deployment because it is suspicious that the missile system’s 2,000-kilometre radar capabilities will allow the US to spy into China. “The US deployment of THAAD on the Korean Peninsula seriously damages the strategic balance in the region and seriously harms the strategic security interests of relevant regional countries, including China,” Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, noted at a recent press conference.

But late last week, America’s most senior South Korean commander indicated that THAAD will be operational within the next 10 months.

How might the Chinese respond? An editorial in the Sohu Review was blunt, suggesting that Beijing will target the South Korean economy in retaliation. As we wrote in WiC336, the government seemed to impose an unofficial ban on Korean pop and entertainment stars from appearing in China earlier this summer after the South Korean government formally agreed to deploy THAAD. Then at the end of October, the JoongAng Ilbo reported that Chinese travel agents had been told to cut tours to South Korea by a fifth. Shares of Korean tourism-related stocks plunged, because Chinese tourists account for just under half of visitors to the country.

Park Byung-kwang from the Institute for National Security Strategy tells Chosun Daily that China has now backed away from imposiing restrictions. “It believes it has bared its teeth enough by causing tourism stocks to fall,” he says.

Paradoxically, this may dismay some of the residents of the Korean resort island of Jeju who have been petitioning their government to stop visa-free travel for Chinese holidaymakers after the stabbing of a local woman. Last week, the Korea Times ran another story highlighting the huge amount of rubbish that Chinese tourists spew across the airport as they leave the country.

This nationalistic tit-for-tat has ancient lineage and it cuts both ways. For example, Chinese slang for the South Koreans is Gaoli Bangzi, or Goryeo billy club. The claim is that Korea’s own unruly travellers inspired the term (servants who accompanied the Goreyo Dynasty’s tribute bearers were often accused of petty crime). Others think it derives from the baton-wielding Korean guards, employed by the Japanese during the occupation of Manchuria in the early twentieth century.

Chinese media has also picked up on the corruption scandal surrounding President Park Geun-hye, which has left her looking like a lame duck ahead of elections at the end of 2017. Her close acquaintance Choi Soon-sil is accused of running a $70 million slush fund and peddling influence. In a particularly scathing editorial, China’s NetEase Review describes Park as a “psychologically tortured” woman in thrall to a cult otherwise known as the Eternal Life Church.

Park’s compromised friend is the daughter of the church’s founder, Choi Tae-min – or “the Korean Rasputin” as one US Wikileaks cable memorably described him. Choi held considerable influence over the younger Park and the South China Morning Post says there are allegations that his daughter too “has a shamanistic power over her” and that Park’s government was secretly run by cult members.

The People’s Daily picked up on the reports of the scandal to challenge the missile deployment policy. “The [South] Korean people no longer know whether the decision to deploy THAAD was the will of President Park,” its editorial claimed.

NetEase widened the attack, saying that Park has failed to deliver on any of her three main election pledges: reducing the power of Korea’s mighty chaebol, improving middle-class finances, and easing tensions with the North. “Korea is walking on the edge of an economic cliff,” NetEase comments.

“China has always been nice to South Korea,” it continued. “But at the critical moment, South Korea has let itself be provoked by the US and stabbed China in the back.”

Knowing China to be her nation’s most crucial export market, Park has tried to perform a diplomatic balancing act. Last year she was the only key US ally to turn up at Xi Jinping’s military parade to commemorate the end of the Second World War, and Sohu Review was even a little sympathetic to the country’s plight, being sandwiched between the two competing superpowers.

All the same, it predicted that, ultimately, the policy of aligning with Washington will lead “Korea into a ditch”.

Of course, South Korea might have less need for THAAD’s protection if the Chinese had proved more effective at controlling the renegade regime in Pyongyang. Since North Korea completed its fifth nuclear test in early September, the US has been stepping up pressure on China to do more to influence its unpredictable neighbour and to stop importing North Korean coal across the border (it accounts for 40% of Pyongyang’s exports), a move that helps Kim’s finances. The Americans have also been threatening to blacklist more of the Chinese state enterprises and banks doing business with the North.

South Korea’s Hankyoren newspaper makes the obvious point that Kim Jong-un would not last long if China cut its economic assistance further. But it cautions that Beijing fears regime change, especially if eventual reunification of the two Koreas leaves the Chinese with US soldiers stationed in the country next door.

The newspaper also cites previous instances in which Japan has tried to invade China through Korea, starting with Hideyoshi Toyotomi in 1592. “The lesson China takes from its history is that once the Korean buffer goes the mainland is imperilled,” it says.

Key now will be how president-elect Donald Trump views the situation. As with many of his policies, his stance is contradictory and unclear. Earlier this year, Trump suggested he would sit down at the conference table and eat hamburgers with Kim Jong-un, prompting North Korea’s DPRK Daily to call him a “wise politician”. He has also suggested that South Korea should acquire its own nuclear weapons and stop relying on the US for military support.

Trump has also proposed that China should intervene more directly as “it’s the only country that can fix the problem”. But the South Koreans have been quick to suggest that American foreign policy will not change in the wake of Trump’s unexpected victory at the polls. “Trump has indicated that the greatest problem facing the world is the nuclear threat and members of his national security team hold the position that favours applying strong pressure against the North,” South Korean foreign minister Yun Byung-se told reporters in the wake of an emergency meeting of its national security council this week.

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