The Granite Tower
Caught in the Middle
Kim Ha Young  |
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승인 2016.04.07  20:27:57
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▲ Caught in the middle. Provided by

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) continues its way as a pariah state. Its recent nuclear experiment as well as the missile launch has certainly agitated the international society. South Korea and the United States (U.S.) were the two most sensitive nations, with China inevitably being involved. However, this time the U.S.- China relationship is quite different than usual. They are cooperating to manipulate this nuclear experiment to their advantage, and are passing it to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) table. As a result, South Korea is caught in the middle—it failed both party politics and the acquirement of THAAD missiles. New actions are expected to take place. 


The DPRK, otherwise known as North Korea, has been attempting nuclear tests from the past. With the most recent 2016 experiment being the fourth, they again displayed their military potential to the international community. Although past nuclear tests of 2006 and 2009 were of small sizes, and the current test is more similar to a powerful hydrogen bomb than a proper nuclear bomb with uranium, U.S. intelligence is hinting that the DPRK would be able to gather enough plutonium and start making a long-range missile system. Thus, the recent nuclear experiment carries heavy meaning for the rest of the international community. 


The attitude of the DPRK, which is clearly shown by launching missiles after the nuclear experiment, is turning the international community more hostile towards the event. Mainly there are four countries interested in the incident— South Korea, the U.S., China, and Russia. The fourth UNSC resolution that those countries worked on aims to impose harsher sanctions than any past ones on North Korea, which can be seen as an expansion from the recently passed secondary boycott law by the U.S. The U.S. government, although it already has no diplomatic relationship with North Korea, has decided to even sanction some other directly related nations.


▲ North Korean nuclear experiment. Provided by

How South Korea Reacted 


The shutdown of the Gaesung Industrial Complex was the main response from the South Korean government. Criticized highly within and outside the nation, the shutdown was indeed an abrupt decision taken solely by Korean authorities. However, although it is true that the shutdown brought economic issues to the South Korean economy, some say that it was an inevitable decision. Professor Lee Shin Wha (Political Science) says, “In any case it would have been a hard decision by the government to produce a symbolic yet economically effective solution.” She believes that it was a solution that succeeded to lessen the impacts on North Korean civilians while displaying strong negative assertions against the North Korean regime—regime and civilians must be differentiated.


Nonetheless, the downside of the shutdown cannot be disregarded. It is undeniable that South Korea has benefited from the industrial complex’s existence, from its symbolic meaning of peace for the overall Korean peninsula, to the relatively cheap and Korean-speaking labor force in Gaesung, North Korea. Hence, many minor enterprisers have invested in the Gaesung Industrial Complex under government recommendation—all of whom lost their source of living after the abrupt shutdown. It seems that Gaesung, for some people, was more than just “a channel for DPRK military funds” unlike the government announcement. If the shutdown was inevitable, there could have been better explanations and better after-service for those who were involved.


▲ China foreign minister urges U.S. caution on missile system. Provided by

THAAD the Bargaining Chip  


The South Korean government’s inflexible decisions regarding North Korea’s nuclear experiment were mostly based on the premise that the U.S. would hand over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles to South Korea, as interpreted by the mass media. The only solution that the South Korean government announced as a defense method for growing threats by North Korea was THAAD. This system, developed by the U.S. army, uses hitto-kill technology to ambush an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) by the enemy. 


The U.S. and South Korea had agreed to cooperate for the launch of THAAD. This was to make up for South Korea’s inability to attack enemy missiles. Although South Korea owns the Aegis Combat System (ACS) that is able to detect enemy attacks through three-dimensional radar, it lacks the SM-3 missile that plays a key role in the attacking system. In short, currently South Korea has the ability to detect the missiles coming, although it is unable to destroy it. Hence, it is crucial for the South Korean government to get hold of THAAD. The problem here is that the so-called promise made with the U.S. government has turned out shallow.


High-Altitude Power Play by the U.S. and China


After secured talks with the Chinese government, the U.S. withdrew its intention to launch THAAD missiles, leaving the nation without proper military capabilities against the North Korean ICBM. The groundless trust in the U.S. has led to a misinterpretation of the U.S.-China relationship by the South Korean government—which has continued for a long time, including issues with wartime operational control rights. China has used THAAD as a bargaining chip with the U.S. in the North Korean crisis, since it considered the launch as an obstacle. Chinese Prime Minister Wang Yi stated in February that the THAAD system could jeopardize China’s legitimate national security interests. 


Professor Kim Sung Han (International Studies) argues that, “This is a calculation by the Chinese government that there would be more loss than good if North Korean nuclear experiments are left to continue.” Furthermore, Kim states that China is reluctant to expanding the arena of U.S.-China competition into the Korean peninsula, just like the THAAD launch would. On the other hand, Professor Lee argues that, “China’s main calculation lies in preventing a nuclear domino effect rather than the THAAD launch; North Korea’s nuclear experiment can affect Taiwan and Japan to attempt development of nuclear weaponry as well.” Considering the fact that there have been discussions on nuclear militarization even in South Korea, China’s concerns have grounds.


Regardless of the exact intention of the Chinese government, it is confirmed that China and the U.S. have dealt with issues regarding the UNSC resolutions on DPRK sanctions. However, due to this high-altitude power play by these strong nations, South Korea has lost its position to stand and voice its concerns; most of the decisions were  made by the two countries, with “some consultations” with South Korea. Professor Lee stated that the South Korean government is caught in the middle without being able neither to properly participate nor to abstain from acting in the current status quo.


▲ Russian, Chinese Diplomats Discuss Draft UNSC Resolution on North Korea. Provided by

Resolution and China 


The UNSC resolution uses a catch-all strategy, and is the harshest among the four that targeted the DPRK solely. It includes sanctions on every part of trade with North Korea, even luxury goods to irritate the North Korean elite. Active participation of the U.S. is prearranged—it is a national election season. It is said by Professor Kim that, “While the U.S. has shown strategic patience by ignoring DPRK, from this fourth nuclear experiment the U.S. is trying to establish a very specific denuclearization through strategic coercion, a strong sanction.” He added that, “If North Korea takes a stance of verifiable nuclear freezing, it is most likely that a discussion towards a peaceful regime including both Koreas, China, and the U.S. would be started.”


Even Russia is demonstrating keen interests. Russia declared its position on the resolution the day before it was passed, to reduce the impact that Russia would receive with past trades with the DPRK. On this, Professor Lee interprets that Russia’s role is not to be disregarded, although it mostly shares China’s position: Russia is building foundations for future intervention in this political topography of U.S.-China competition. South Korea, in this case, has minor influence— it has been a high-altitude power play among the bigger nations. Ousted by the U.S., and being at odds with China by handling the THAAD issue, the South Korean government has no bold shoulders to rest upon.


This is why the role of China in this resolution is important for South Korea. According to Professor Kim, if it is practiced properly by the international society including China, it would give a huge impact to the North Korean economy. However, whether China would actually follow the resolution contents is unclear. On the past sanctions, China has acted in a lukewarm manner since China was in the position of importing natural resources from North Korea. Although currently private Chinese banks are already discontinuing several financial services in some parts of the DPRK, nothing is yet sure. Such movements in the private sectors of China would increase when the secondary boycott legislation by the U.S. solidifies. If proper sanctions are possible against North Korea, their military threats would certainly lose their strength. 


Yet the UNSC resolution is only a starting point for the South Korean government. The South Korean government’s clear statement and ultimate goal lie in peaceful reunification. Their aim is not to destroy the North Korean regime nor to forcefully absorb North Korea under South Korean control—although Chinese intervention seems inevitable. Their aim is to meet an independent peaceful agreement without making the Korean peninsula another scapegoat for a power play by stronger nations. Incidents like the tragic 6.25 war must be prevented—it is time for a wise action. Just like China, the most strategic player, South Korea should not hesitate to take a real part in this issue.


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