May 2024

Shifting security dynamics

Victory by the ROK’s Democratic Party in recent elections and a concurrent tightening of Sino-North Korea ties signifies a perceptible change in the workings of regional stability, writes Yvonne Gill 

The liberal Democratic Party’s ascendancy in South Korea’s mid-term elections, coupled with the almost simultaneous visit by a high-level Chinese delegation to North Korea, represents a pivotal moment for the security dynamics of the region. As the new government in Seoul charts its course, it will face a complex array of challenges and opportunities, each requiring deft diplomatic manoeuvring and a nuanced understanding of the intricate geopolitical landscape of this volatile region – where Chinese belligerence poses a threat to almost all the countries in its neighbourhood.

The Democratic Party (DPK) and smaller opposition parties jointly won 192 of 300 seats in the National Assembly polls on April 10, widely considered a referendum on the policies pursued by President Yoon Suk Yeol, who remains for another three years in office. Yoon’s People Power Party (PPP), which was already in a minority in a legislature dominated by the DPK, won 108 seats. That makes Yoon no better that a lame duck president whose aggressive pro-Indo-Pacific agenda could suffer a setback.

South Korea’s ability to navigate the treacherous nexus between China and North Korea, while simultaneously managing its relationships with the US and other regional powers, will have profound consequences, not just for its own security and prosperity, but for the broader stability of the Indo-Pacific region as a whole.

As the world watches with bated breath, the DPK’s performance on the international stage will be a litmus test for its leadership and a potential harbinger of the region’s future security trajectory. Failure to strike the right balance could jeopardise South Korea’s strategic interests and undermine its efforts to defuse tensions and promote cooperation in this increasingly volatile geopolitical landscape.

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED: Zhao Leji’s April visit to China was hailed a ‘complete success’ by the Chinese Foreign Ministry

Equally significant is the visit of the Chinese delegation to North Korea, which took place from April 11 to 13. Led by Zhao Leji, China’s third-highest-ranking official, the visit, marking 75 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries, was hailed as a ‘complete success’ by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning. This visit points to the deepening ties between Beijing and Pyongyang and the complex geopolitical chess game unfolding in the region.

The timing of this visit, following the DPK’s victory in South Korea’s mid-term elections, adds another layer of complexity to the situation. The DPK has traditionally advocated for a more conciliatory stance towards North Korea, favouring diplomatic engagement and a ‘sunshine policy’ of economic incentives and cultural exchanges. However, the DPK’s approach must now contend with the reality of China’s deepening influence over North Korea, which could potentially undermine any efforts at denuclearisation or rapprochement with the West.

Zhao Leji’s visit also comes at a time when North Korea is seeking to boost its cooperation with China and Russia in the face of a standoff with the United States and South Korea over its advancing nuclear programme. China, North Korea’s biggest aid benefactor, has been under scrutiny for its clandestine assistance to North Korea, in violation of international sanctions.

The diplomatic engagement between China and North Korea is expected to continue, with further exchanges and high-level meetings planned to commemorate the 75th year of the establishment of diplomatic ties.

The DPK has traditionally advocated for a more conciliatory stance towards North Korea

The DPK’s approach to North Korea’s nuclear programme and regional stability is expected to be more diplomatic and less confrontational, emphasising dialogue and multilateral cooperation. The DPK favours engaging with China and other regional actors to address the complex issue of North Korea’s nuclear programme and maintain regional stability.

‘This isn’t the Democratic Party’s victory but a great victory for the people,’ said DPK leader Lee Jae-myung, who narrowly lost the 2022 presidential election to Yoon. ‘Politicians on both sides of the aisle must pool our strength to deal with the current economic crisis. The Democratic Party will lead the way in solving the livelihood crisis,’ he added.

The PPP lost mainly due to economic and other domestic issues like rising food prices, an ongoing doctors’ strike, a rapidly ageing population, runaway housing prices and the long-delayed overhaul of the national pension system, as well as charges of corruption against PPP leaders.

Yoon lambasted Lee for aligning with China’s criticism of South Korea’s foreign policy

Lee had also lashed out at Yoon for expanding military cooperation with Japan, a former colonial master of Korea, and for alienating China, South Korea’s largest trading partner. President Yoon’s decision to pay compensation to Koreans, who were forced to work in Japanese factories and women as sex slaves in wartime brothels during World War II, was another campaign pitch of the DPK.

DPK politicians have also been critical of what they see as the PPP’s tacit support of Japan’s plan to release Fukushima nuclear plant’s wastewater into the ocean. They branded the PPP leadership as pro-Japanese traitors for succumbing to Japanese dictates.

For his part, Yoon had lambasted Lee for aligning with China’s criticism of South Korea’s foreign policy. The opposition leader met Chinese ambassador Xing Haiming at a dinner event in June last year. In his speech, the envoy stated that South Korea was bowing to ‘external factors’, including US pressure against China. ‘We hope the South Korean side will faithfully keep its promise and clearly respect China’s core interests, including on the Taiwan issue,’ he said.

DPK leader Lee Jae-myung
DPK leader Lee Jae-myung: ‘This isn’t the Democratic Party’s victory but a great victory for the people’

This prompted Seoul to summon the Chinese ambassador, condemning his statement as ‘unforgivable’ criticism of South Korean policies. And Lee was caught in the crossfire. The DPK had also sent delegations of lawmakers to engage with Chinese government officials and business representatives to foster bilateral relations, independent of the Yoon administration’s policies.

One of the most pressing challenges for the DPK-led government will be navigating the intensifying rivalry between the United States and China, two superpowers with competing interests and divergent visions for the region’s future. Historically, the DPK has advocated for a more balanced foreign policy, seeking to maintain strong ties with both Washington and Beijing.

The DPK’s bigger presence in the legislature raises the prospect of renewed efforts to revive the stalled Six-Party Talks, a multilateral diplomatic process involving China, Japan, Russia, North and South Korea, and the United States. This initiative, aimed at denuclearising the Korean Peninsula through a combination of incentives and pressure, could gain fresh momentum under the new government in Seoul.

At the same time, the DPK-led government may seek to leverage South Korea’s robust trilateral partnership with the United States and Japan, which aims to promote regional stability and deter potential aggression from North Korea or China. This delicate balancing act will require deft diplomatic manoeuvring and a nuanced understanding of the complex web of rivalries and alliances that shape the region’s security dynamics.

In pursuing its regional security objectives, the DPK is likely to embrace a multifaceted approach that combines traditional diplomatic channels with economic statecraft and multilateral engagement. One potential avenue could involve leveraging South Korea’s economic clout and trade ties to foster cooperation and defuse tensions.

By deepening economic integration with regional partners, including China, Seoul could create a web of interdependencies that raise the costs of conflict and incentivise peaceful coexistence. Additionally, the DPK may seek to reinvigorate multilateral forums and institutions as platforms for dialogue and conflict resolution, potentially reviving moribund initiatives like the Six-Party Talks or exploring new avenues for regional cooperation on issues ranging from non-proliferation to maritime security and environmental protection.

However, the success of these endeavours will hinge on South Korea’s ability to navigate the complex web of competing interests and rivalries that characterise the region, while also maintaining the delicate balance between its security commitments to the United States and its economic ties with China.

Yvonne Gill is a freelance journalist based in London