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South Korea's Dual Agendas Undermine Allies' Unity

“It is our stance that freedom of navigation and freedom of flight should be ensured in this area, and that any conflicts be resolved according to relevant agreements and established international norms,”said South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo, referring to the South China Sea, in a recent news briefing with his American counterpart in Seoul. 

The remark, made on the heels of a trilateral meeting in the South Korean capital among Premier Li Keqiang of China, President Park Geun-hye of South Korea, and President Shinzo Abe of Japan, was tentative. According to an account in the Wall Street Journal, “South Korean officials appeared eager to avoid the topic.”

Indeed, it took both President Obama, who chided Park during her visit to the White House last month, and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who was obliged to travel to Seoul, to convince South Korea’s government to stand with its regional allies and the US to challenge China’s expansive territorial claims in Asia’s international waters. 

Park has been reluctant to criticize China because she doesn’t want to disrupt her bilateral efforts to secure China’s support on a range of other issues, from the denuclearization of North Korea to the reunification of the Korean state. Yet, however desirable those goals might be, freedom of navigation is vital to her country. The last thing Seoul needs is for Beijing to block an artery through which the hydrocarbons that power South Korea pass, along with imports and exports vital to its economy. 

Likewise, Seoul has little interest in encouraging China’s expansive territorial ambitions. Beijing claims a submerged rock in the East China Sea that houses South Korea’s Ieodo Ocean Research Station, and Beijing’s proclaimed “air defense identification zone” in the area not only covers the skies over Ieodo, which is closer to South Korea than China, but closely abuts sovereign South Korean territory, including the islands of Marado and Hongdo just south of the Korean peninsula. 

Park can be friends with everyone for only so long because Beijing, unfortunately for her, is forcing countries to take sides. And her choice will be significant. As Van Jackson of the Center for a New American Security perceptively writes, “Among Asia’s most meaningful powers, only South Korea is seen as having the potential to tilt toward Beijing’s preferences, making its voice on regional disputes even more important.” This makes Park’s decisions “a leading indicator of the future direction of the regional order.” 

This month, South Korea chose the correct side, but only after what appears to have been a long arm-twisting campaign. Her defense minister’s comments, welcome but tepid, are a sign that Park will do the right thing, but only after other avenues are exhausted. 

The region needs—and deserves—a better South Korea.

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