Tensions rising over the East Sea

Hannah Kris, July 26, 2019, 9:34 a.m.


The East Sea is turning into a powder keg after aerial provocations by China and Russia on Tuesday followed by a short-range missile test by North Korea on Thursday. South Korea-Japan relations, meanwhile, are going from bad to worse as the neighbors are entangled in a dispute over compensations for World War II victims while Tokyo continues to claim sovereignty over Korea's Dokdo islets.

The consequences could be catastrophic for South Korea, which seems at a loss how to deal with the multiple threats.

◆ Diplomatic Isolation

The government here had high hopes that it could regain its leverage as a mediator in U.S.-North Korea dialogue after securing a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the border truce village of Panmunjom last month.

But such hopes were dashed when North Korea boycotted working-level talks with the U.S. over joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises planned for next month.

North Korea flatly rejected food aid from South Korea and will only talk to the U.S. On Thursday morning, it conducted a fresh missile test, just two days after Chinese and Russian warplanes entered the South's Air Defense Identification Zone without warning and a Russian surveillance plane intruded into South Korean airspace.

North Korea, China and Russia may have staged simultaneous provocations to detect holes in security cooperation among South Korea, the U.S. and Japan. They are using the East Sea to flex their muscles against the U.S., which in turn is pushing its allies to join a campaign against China's expanding military might in the South China Sea. The presidents of China and Russia also met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in April and June.

South Korea has managed to isolate itself diplomatically as it focused more on engaging North Korea than on bolstering ties with the four major global powers. Differences became apparent with the U.S. and Japan since last year over the North Korean denuclearization and sanctions against the North.

Seoul has failed to find a solution in a dispute with Beijing over the deployment of the U.S.' Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery here, and Chinese President Xi Jinping scrapped plans to visit Seoul ahead of the G20 Summit in Osaka last month.

Meanwhile, the Seoul and Tokyo's row over compensating victims of forced labor is escalating. Even as North Korea, China and Russia march increasingly in step, tripartite summits between South Korea, the U.S. and Japan have been on hold since September 2017.

Yun Duk-min, a former chief of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, said, "As a result of our all-out efforts to engage North Korea, joint drills with the U.S. have either been scrapped or downsized drastically, and there is even talk of terminating a military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan. As a result, we've become a punching bag for regional neighbors."

◆ U.S. Reluctance to Intervene

Seoul wants the U.S. to intervene in its dispute with Japan and to deal with China and Russia's aerial provocations, but instead Washington is pushing it to join its military adventures in the Gulf and South China Sea.

The U.S.' National Security Adviser John Bolton, who visited Seoul earlier this week, was noncommittal on the spat, saying both sides should solve the problem by themselves, while demanding Korea to send warships to the Strait of Hormuz, where the U.S. is limbering up for war with Iran.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who plans to visit the South next month, is highly likely to make the same demands as Bolton. The Trump administration is focused on a much narrower interpretation of American interests than its predecessors, and feels no need to intervene in the South Korea-Japan standoff.

"The U.S. didn't even take an active stance against China when Korea struggled due to the THAAD dispute, even though it involved American issues," a diplomatic source in Washington said. "It's even less likely to get involved in a dispute over the shared history of the two allies."

There is a strong chance of further provocations by North Korea, China and Russia. Kim Sung-han at Korea University said, "Our government has been too focused on improving inter-Korean relations and rectifying historical disputes with Japan. It would be in a better position to resolve problems through security cooperation with the U.S. and Japan."

"It is important to maintain diplomatic balance among the four major powers rather than focusing only on North Korea," he added.

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