Korea and … Hong Kong …

As the primary players appear to be moving forward rapidly toward peace talks on the Korean Peninsula, it certainly appears that the President’s “crazy man” approach to the issue has been a primary motivator driving the North and South toward some sort of reconciliation.  It has been reported that the two Koreas may be open to a treaty to replace the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement.

It seems a tenable assumption that in addition to the overriding desire to avoid a nuclear holocaust, the South has been driven to seek a greater level of reconciliation with the North due to a concern that the U.S. may not be as committed to defending it as it has been since the 1950’s, while the North has been prodded toward a more conciliatory stance by China – its main benefactor, without whom the regime would seemingly quickly perish – because China doesn’t want its current policies for extending its territorial, financial, and military reach thwarted or even impeded by any U.S. steps that might be taken in response to aggressive provocations by the North.

While any agreement that reduces tensions and the current North Korean nuclear threat is certainly to be lauded in the short run, the details of any pact will determine whether the arrangement is favorable for South Korean, Japanese, and American interests in the long run – i.e., over the next 25 years.

Some commentators assert that what both the Chinese and North Korean regimes have feared since the signing of the armistice is that the democratic and capitalist norms that have flourished in South Korea over the last 60 years would eventually sprout sympathetic movements in in the North, ultimately causing the toppling of the Kim regime and resulting in a united, free, democratic, capitalistic nation on China’s border.  It has occurred to me – a notion that as likely as not is all haywire – that President Xi might have a number of strategic reasons why he would be strongly encouraging the North to be forthcoming in the talks, and sending what signals of sympathy and conciliation he could to the South to facilitate a pact which provided assurance to all sides and enable all sides to save face.  I have wondered whether he might not be reasoning as follows:

First, an agreement would cool off the U.S., and cause the U.S. to shift its attention out of his back yard at a time when it still has the means to effectively serve as a counterweight to China’s influence in Asia if it so chooses.  He could conclude, based the recent transpiring of events, that every year that passes will probably make the U.S., both due to obviously increasingly constrained resources and an apparently diminishing resolve to be the world’s policeman, less willing and able to contest pressures China might ultimately wish to exert on South Korea.

Second, by using his influence with Chairman Kim to enable President Trump to claim some level of victory in his talks with Mr. Kim, Mr. Xi could — if he deftly positioned his desires as a tacit if not explicit quid pro quo – cause the U.S. to lighten up on any potential trade protection measures that will stifle the Chinese economy at a time when China is still significantly reliant on U.S. monetary policy, trade, and stability, and also cause the U.S. to continue to refrain from engaging in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) or like trade arrangements in the Asian theater, thereby enabling China to further fill the economic vacuum created by America’s withdrawal from TPP.

Third, it would provide him time to determine how to deal with Mr. Kim, who is clearly an irritant to China as well as to the West.  Commentators regularly assert that China and Mr. Xi support the Kim regime because they fear the instability that could result in the North from the fall of the regime.  Assuming that accurately reflects Mr. Xi’s current thinking, no one likes an erratic irritant; Mr. Xi might believe that given sufficient time, steps could be taken that would enable China to rid itself of an irritant without creating instability in the North.

Finally, contrary to China’s reported decades-long fears that South Korea’s liberal democracy and free market norms might sweep north, Mr. Xi might be determining that enabling the West to transfer its attention from the Korean Peninsula by defusing current tensions might, in the coming decades, afford China the opportunity to quietly and gradually obtain influence over the entire Korean Peninsula.  As I’ve indicated when making Noise before, I have been very struck by Richard Haass’ observation, in A World in Disarray, that in “economic, military, and diplomatic interactions,” “proximity counts [my emphasis].”  South Korea relies on exports for half of its growth, and China is its largest export partner (25%).  Although there is the argument that currently, China would hurt its own economy if it sought to bring significant pressure on South Korea, it seems more likely than not that over the coming years and decades, the relative weight of China’s influence on Seoul will grow – perhaps enabling it to persuade Seoul to abandon the THAAD defense missile system, to request the withdrawal of American troops, to give China a voice in its government, etc., etc.

Which, at long last, leads to the title of this post.  While the musings set forth here can be readily dismissed as far-fetched ramblings, one might consider how firmly Hong Kong’s liberal democratic norms stand today as compared to the day in 1997 when China assumed administration of Hong Kong.  Why wouldn’t one expect in the coming decades that China — unless effectively checked by the U.S. — will gradually exert economic and veiled military pressure on South Korea as it has with Hong Kong?

It behooves U.S. and South Korean policymakers to take great care with the details of any understanding negotiated in the coming months.

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