The Most Important Korea Story of 2017: China, South Korea and THAAD



It is hard to know which country would be the first to challenge the Trump administration with a serious foreign policy crisis, but North Korea was clearly a candidate. With Trump’s “not going to happen” Tweet on North Korea’s ICBM and Kim Jong Un’s personal promise to test when they feel like it, it was a good bet that Pyongyang would provide an early test. But the real tests may be more subtle: salami-tactics that add up to serious threats by stealth. An early case in point, and one that could eclipse the significance of North Korea: China’s decision to lean on South Korea over THAAD deployment.

It is generally unwise to take China’s Global Times as an indicator of government policy, but in this case a string of editorials on THAAD from the middle of last year are proving surprisingly prescient (particularly here but also here). When the deployment was announced, an editorial on “Five Actions China Should Take to Counter THAAD” proposed the following:

  • Sanction specific local governments of the ROK which accept the deployment of THAAD, and sanction ROK-based firms and service suppliers related to the deployment of THAAD. China should terminate its economic ties and social exchanges with them, and should no longer let their products enter the Chinese market.   
  • Sanction Korean politicians who advocate for the deployment of THAAD, refuse to let them enter China, and sanction their family businesses. 
  • The PLA should develop corresponding plans that best minimize harms the deployment of THAAD would pose to China's strategic and security environment. These plans at minimum should include the technical interference on THAAD and targeting its deployed missiles.
  • Reevaluate the long-term impact of sanctioning DPRK in the Northeast Asia, and tie together the sanctioning regime imposed on DPRK with the eroding regional balance of power after the deployment of THAAD.
  • Explore the potential of China-Russia joint action to offset possible impacts of the US-ROK deployment of THAAD. 

As bad as this sounds, it is actually proving more insidious. Like the swarm of “fishing boats” that have played a role in China’s South China Sea policy, no single action is easy to call out. Nonetheless, a clear pattern of slow-burn escalation is emerging. The issue started with K-pop musicians. There was some ambiguity if they were really turned back as a result of THAAD. But that was cleared up by Councilor Fang Kun at the Chinese Foreign Ministry who told reporters in December “that it is hard for Beijing to adopt a policy supportive of Korean pop culture unless the THAAD issue is resolved first." Translation: "we aren't restricting Korean performers because of THAAD, but we are" (KBS). This week, Hankyoreh provides an inventory of recent Chinese actions in addition to restricting broadcast appearances by Korean entertainers: banning charter flights from South Korea—circuitously admitted in the Foreign Ministry press conference of January 6—and auditing local affiliates of the Lotte Group, which provided land for the deployment.

Actions with more plausible deniability include exclusion of LG Chem and Samsung SDI from the approved electric battery suppliers list—arguably connected with Samsung’s phone problems—and reopening an investigation toward expansion of anti-dumping tariffs on South Korean polysilicon for use in solar power. But who knows? And the pressure appears to be accelerating. In the last two or three days, Chinese officials reported that 11,272 kilos worth of Korean cosmetics were banned from entering the Chinese market due to lack of proper paperwork (Hankyung) and stock prices for companies exporting to China, including those in the entertainment and cosmetics business, have been in free-fall mode, itself showing that the signal is being heard (Chosun).

And there is now an escalation on the military side as well (Korea Joongang Daily). Last week, the Ministry of National Defense revealed that the Chinese have unilaterally cancelled nine bilateral military meetings and talks since the THAAD deployment was announced, including the annual Vice-Ministerial talks, and has ignored any and all communications from the ROK MND (YTN). Now there are even reports of direct military action. Between 10am-3pm on January 9th, a dozen Chinese military aircraft, including a bomber, early warning radar craft, and intel collection platform violated the Korea Air Defense Identification Zone (KADIZ). The ROK dispatched fighter jets in response and sent an immediate communication via a ROK-PRC military hotline but the communication was ignored. The ROK government allegedly tried to suppress media reports of this incident but failed to maintain the media embargo because Japanese media had jumped on it.

Does the seriousness of these events need any comment? But as one of my colleagues pointed out, if you can push the UK, Norway and the Philippines around, why not South Korea? The stakes on THAAD deployment just got a lot higher.

Thanks to Jason Kuo and Inbok Rhee

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