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Between a Rock and a Hard Place: China’s Strained Relationship with North and South Korea

Mar 11, 2017 Translated by Comments (2)     Add your comment Newsletter

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Editor’s Note: Dr. Wang Xiaoling, an expert on Chinese-South Korean relations from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences is interviewed by Duo Wei News about the current state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula and how it is affecting Chinese-Korean relations.


Over the past few days, an air of turmoil has blanketed the Korean Peninsula. Kim Jong-eun’s brother, Kim Jong-nam was assassinated, Lotte got caught up in the THAAD dispute and China banned the trading of coal with North Korea. The string of events has expected growing concern over the outbreak of partial or all-out war in the region in 2017. DuoWei News reporters went to ask Wang Xiaoling of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ National Institute for Asia-Pacific and Global Strategy about the recent events. Wang Xiaoling believes that in fact Chinese-South Korean relations are currently in a difficult state, but that South Korea’s government changing hands could be a critical juncture for future relations between the two countries and that if China seeks to become a regional power it will need to participate in the positive drafting of policy in the region. As all of this happens, the question of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is playing an ever more important role.

Duo Wei: In response to Lotte’s handing over of a golf course to the Department of Defense for implementation of the THAAD missile defense system, China has expressed that it will take necessary measures to ensure their own safety and interests. Do you think by taking such measures, Chinese-South Korea may be about to cut ties?

Wang Xiaoling: Both China and South Korea have been affected on multiple fronts, from economics to cultural exchange. From a government perspective, Chinese and South Korean interaction at a high-level became very rare starting from last year. Even the so-called “Korean fever” has started cooling down.

Consequently, there has been an obvious reduction in exchange between Chinese and South Korean citizens and interaction in the political sphere. Although this and cutting-ties aren’t one in the same, it does signify a cooling off of relations. “Preparing to cut-ties” may not be the best way to describe the current difficulties in Chinese and South Korean relations.

Duo Wei: The current political situation in South Korea is chaotic. There are even voices saying that it is a very risky move (to deploy THAAD) but the Korean government still wants to move ahead, especially during this period of political turmoil and that, in their position of power, no one can stop them. At the same time, the THAAD missile defense system issue, remains the core concern in this game of chess. How can China find balance and appeal to the interests of both countries while protecting itself and ensure stability in the region?

Wang Xiaoling: I believe that in the past we have maintained the balance between our relations with North and South Korea fairly well--Chinese and South Korean relations have developed particularly well. But at the end of the day, South Korea is America’s ally and this, by and large, is the ‘bottleneck’ so to speak of China and South Korea’s relationship. In the face of security risks, South Korea chose America and in the areas of economics, human relations, etc..., our relations have taken a step backward.

Looking forward, if after the election, South Korea seeks to positively change their relationship with us, then we can start to consider our relationship from a new place. That’s going to mean taking a long hard look at the soft underbelly of the security issue between China and South Korea.

After the election, we and South Korea will certainly undergo a sort of rennovation of our relationship. At that time, South Korea may take more positive initiative. At that time, they may be more willing to build a positive Chinese-South Korean relationship. Economically, China and South Korea are inseparable, and now that America’s presence in the region is shrinking, it may put pressure on South Korea.

In the process of rebuilding our trust of one another, China should not retreat in the face of difficulties. We need to start making breakthroughs in the areas of military and security cooperation and that we need to re-think Sino-Korean relation under the Korean-U.S. alliance situation. China thinks by agreeing to deploy THAAD, Korea has moved to join the U.S.-Japan-Korea alliance to contain China.

During Park Geun-hye’s term in office, external voices often expressed that Chinese and South Korean relations were great, but in actuality the Park administration was continually strengthenging military cooperation with the U.S. and Japan. Now we have to start rebuilding trust with Korea. If they continue to evade the THAAD issue, I believe it is impossible to discuss strengthening economic and cultural exchange.

Then, how will China’s and North Korea’s relationship develop? My personal opinion is that regardless of the state of our relations with South Korea, in working with North Korea we should persist in advocating for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We look forward to developing our relationship with North Korea, but wish to follow a healthy path for that development.

China bears an ever increasing burden on the issue of North Korean nuclearization. Before, Beijing would avoid the issue believing that it was America’s responsibility, not China’s, but in fact North Korea’s nuclear development is harming China’s interests in the region. Beijing must emphasize that this issue is a red line which cannot be crossed. I think banning coal trade with North Korea is a great and responsible step toward maintaining the peace and stability of the region.


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Keywords: China South Korea North Korea Chinese Korean relations

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2 Comments ( Add your comment )


Will China help S. Korea stop nuclear missiles from North Korea? Where are China's missile defense systems? Nonexistent? Then why whine about a situation they themselves helped escalate when they offer no solution themselves?

Mar 14, 2017 08:20

I think it's not just defense systems we are talking about. The move was more like a test to see Chinese reaction to military relationship between S.Korea and USA. I mean the current S.Korea's president is going down anyway, so if something went terribly wrong, then she would have been the one to blame, even if she didn't do anything

Mar 29, 2017 05:31

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