Is South Korea’s Strategic Gambit Beginning to Pay Early Dividends?

By Troy Stangarone

Faced with a fourth North Korean nuclear test and a new long range missile test, along with the possibility that North Korea once again could face relatively mild sanctions from the international community, South Korea faced a strategic dilemma. Should it allow prior patterns of response to prevail and potentially subsequent nuclear and missile tests to take place or take action to signal to North Korea and the international community the serious nature with which it viewed the continuing progression of North Korea’s weapons and missile programs? Seoul has chosen to change the international dynamics surrounding North Korea’s nuclear program, and may be beginning to see early dividends in its shift in policy.

Seoul has taken two significant steps in addressing the North Korean nuclear crisis. The first was indicating that it would begin negotiations with the United States on the deployment of the Thermal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, missile defense system and the second is the surprise closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

In the case of THAAD, South Korea had been strongly reluctant to even discuss its potential deployment in light of China’s strong assertions of concern about the system’s potential impact on its own security.

In the case of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, South Korea was taking a significant risk in closing the last meaningful form of cooperation between the two Koreas. While closing the complex would deny North Korea upwards of $120 million in hard currency and more in the future from rising wages, in light of estimates that North Korea’s recent missile test may have cost $850 million and that its nuclear program annually costs at a minimum $1.1 billion, the closure of Kaesong alone would be insufficient to slow and reverse North Korea’s weapons programs on its own.

Instead, to be successful pressure on North Korea would require efforts more broadly in the international community. The announcement of talks on THAAD and the closure of Kaesong were to designed to demonstrate to countries such as China and Russia that the seriousness of South Korea’s position and thereby pressure them, along with the United States, into taking stronger actions. If South Korea was going to ask the international community to take stronger actions, it needed to demonstrate that it was willing to do so as well.

If a recent announcement by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reflects broader policy in Beijing, Seoul’s gambit may be paying dividends. Minister Wang announced that China will support stronger sanctions covering a wide range of areas on Pyongyang.

However, the more significant shift may be in China’s policy towards denuclearization on the Korean peninsula. Previously, Beijing prioritized stability over denuclearization. According to Minister Wang China’s policy going forward would be “First [that] the Korean Peninsula cannot be nuclearized. This applies to the North and South. Second, there is no military solution to this issue. If there is a war or turbulence it is not acceptable for China. Third, China will not allow its legitimate interests including in national security interests to be undermined.”

If China’s position is truly shifting to prioritize denuclearization over stability this would be a significant alteration and would move its policy more in line with South Korea, Japan, and the United States. While insufficient in itself to resolve the North Korean nuclear issues which ultimately will also require deeper dialogue with North Korea, if each of the parties’ interests, including Moscow’s, became more closely aligned it would make coordinating responses easier and remove North Korea’s ability to play one country off the other as it looked like it had done earlier in the current crisis.

Until the UN Security Council passes a resolution on North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, it will be unclear what China considers to be strong and wide ranging new sanctions. It will also be important to watch how China’s policy more broadly develops and whether any shift is contingent upon THAADs deployment to South Korea, which China views as undermining its national security interests. That being said, for the moment, these were the types of steps South Korea was hoping to encourage when it decided to open talks on THAAD and close the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from UN Geneva’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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