Last week, South Korean President Park Geun Hye attended the military parade for China's 70th anniversary commemoration of the end of World War Two. Officially billed as a celebration of fascism's defeat, it looked like anything but.
More than one analyst noted the obvious incongruence of observing fascism's end with a giant military extravaganza, complete with goose-steeping soldiers and flashy hardware displays. Chinese President Xi Jinping attempted to take the edge off the bullying, nationalist signaling by declaring a force down-sizing, but that likely will not assuage China's nervous neighbors.
Except perhaps for South Korea.
Unlike leaders from many parts of the democratic world, Park Geun Hye chose to attend. Barack Obama, Shinzo Abe and elected figures from Asia and the EU all declined to go. Much like their conspicuous absence from the Moscow 70th anniversary spectacular in May, their avoidance again sought to prevent the appearance of validation of aggressive military power. Park too avoided the Moscow event but not this one.
The decision was controversial. For weeks the South Korean media debated whether she should attend the parade, just meet Xi or skip altogether. Conservative Western analysts pointed out how Park would be the only democratic leader on the podium next to Xi and Vladimir Putin. And indeed she was in rather unseemly company. The Americans were rumored to be pushing her not to go. Korean conservatives were wary at best.
Not an endorsement of Chinese power or hegemony
Despite reasonable fears of the validation of Chinese power and expansionism, Park still made the right decision to go, because she needs China to rein in North Korea. Severing that client-patron relationship is the real story behind almost everything Park does with China – all the trips (six in three years), wooing, schmoozing, silence on Chinese bad behavior in the South China Sea, and so on. Is this unfortunate? Yes. But it serves a greater, and moral, purpose.
This is often misread. Over the years, I've variously heard that Park is thought to value the American alliance less than her predecessor, Lee Myung Bak. Or perhaps she is a sinophile who thinks South Korea's future lies with China, its number one export destination. Korea was, after all, the most loyal member of the old tribute system, and China saved Korea from Japan in the Imjin War. Or perhaps she is her dictator father's daughter: she just does not care that much that China is an illiberal oligarchy. And the gossipy Korean media has helpfully chimed-in occasionally that she is Xi's 'girlfriend.'
All these explanations rely on speculative psychological evaluations of Park herself, but miss a much more obvious account: the geopolitical value of China – North Korea's last and only patron – to South Korea. Scott Snyder and Andrei Lankov are helpful here, and certainly South Korea should seek good relations with China, if only because of sheer proximity. But I would go a step further and say that the real point of Park's relentless efforts with China is the final isolation and, possibly, implosion of the DPRK. Park cannot say as much publicly; she cannot look as though she is treating China so instrumentally. But her Administration's own discussion of her aggressive summit diplomacy strongly hints at this.
If we understand this to be the real driver then the costs she is accruing – such as last week's imagery of her on stage with a collection of dictators, or South Korea's conspicuous silence on Chinese shenanigans in the South China Sea – make sense. These are the concessions she is making to convince China that South Korea is not an enemy, that North Korea is no longer worth the headache to China, and, ideally, that South Korea can control the whole peninsula without that threatening China.
The Chinese will manipulate her presence, but it's worth it
So yes, her presence will almost be used by Chinese state media to suggest Korea's 'appreciation' or 'admiration' for China. PLA generals may indeed fantasise that South Korea is drifting away from the Americans. And the propaganda value of having a democratic leader watching the goose-stepping was so obvious that Park was placed in the middle of the front row. It was embarrassing. In fact, I think the greatest obstacle to Park's courting of China may be South Korean public opinion. Koreans are quite nationalistic and proud; if Park's solicitations of Xi start to look like fawning or toadying, then she will face a backlash at home.
But these costs, much like the costs of Seoul's silence on Chinese regional bullying, are primarily reputational. South Korea has not actually provided material or verbal support to China in a conflict with a democratic power, and it almost certainly will not. So while these rhetorical costs are unfortunate, they are minor. Given China's enormous potential leverage over North Korea, that is reason enough for democracies everywhere to give her a pass. It is worth noting in this context that Park skipped Putin's own 'anti-fascist' gala. But swaying China on North Korea is so important that a bit of instrumental flattery this time around is worth it.
What happens to North Korea without China?
All this will take time. China will not give up the North Korean 'buffer' lightly or soon. But Park is laying the groundwork for this long-term project. By 2007, it was pretty clear to all but the most committed leftist engager in South Korea that the Sunshine Policy had failed. Despite a decade of handouts and political protection from criticism of its unique 'system,' the DRPK had done little to reciprocate. Its polity was still closed and extremely brutal; it developed nuclear weapons and missiles at the same time it spoke of reconciliation. So Park's predecessor withdrew the subsidies and fixed the relationship with the Americans after the erosion of the Sunshine period.
With the Americans back on board, Park has taken the next step – active regional diplomacy to isolate North Korea. Pyongyang has, at best, two serious semi-friends to bail out its inefficient economy – China and Russia. Russia is almost certainly too weak, especially in Asia, and especially after the Ukraine war, to prop-up North Korea.
That leaves China. China is the last and really only possible escape hatch for North Korea from the obvious need for it to change. Without China, North Korea would be exposed to crushing international criticism, sharp economic contraction, and isolation. Foreign banking would be nearly impossible, and long-standing sanctions would finally have teeth. Pyonyang elites would no longer have access to the mafia lifestyle that makes the brutal farce of North Korea nonetheless worth it to them. The goodies of their decadent lifestyle – the liquor, yachts, fuel, cars, prostitutes and so on – would no longer have a pipeline in. North Korea's various smuggling operations – of meth, missile parts, counterfeit currency and who knows what else – would lose their exit venue. Tighten the screws like this enough, with real costs for Pyongyang's court economy, and the DPRK's elites will eventually turn on each other. This is the likeliest route to North Korea's end.
So relax about South Korea's warming relations with China. There are almost certainly strategic; that is, they are aiming at a larger goal – reunification – which democracies everywhere should share. If Park has to laugh at Xi's jokes and put up with his nationalist bluster, that's a small price to pay.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Republic of Korea.