Throughout the Cold War, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, somewhat appropriately referred to by the acronym ‘MAD’, ensured that in spite of high tensions, none of the nuclear powers ever directly attacked each other.
While the Cold War is over, the principle of understanding the mutual detriment of killing millions in two or more nations still holds strong. It is for this reason that Russian President Putin again stated that there is a clear rationale for North Korea’s weapons programme. The authorities in Pyongyang do not want to see their country and people destroyed in the way Iraq and Libya were, as the Arab states did not have a ‘MAD’ deterrent.
But into the literally mad fray of Donald Trump, Trump’s Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and his CIA Director Mike Pompeo threatening to destroy North Korea, seemingly at least once a week, there is a very real development that is making many in Washington worried behind the scenes.
South Korea is pivoting towards the geographically close superpowers of China and Russia. Indeed, in a literal sense, all that separates South Korea from Russia and China is North Korea. In spite of this, for decades, the zero-sum Cold War mentality which dominated geo-political relations in the late 20th century, led to South Korea being cut-off from two nearby giants.
Today, this has changed greatly. Furthermore, the meaningful scope and intensity of Seoul’s relations with both Beijing and Moscow has accelerated rapidly under the moderate rule of President Moon Jae-in.
Moon has developed a visibly productive and personally warm relationship with Vladimir Putin since taking office in May of this year. Moon supported, without hesitation, Putin’s tripartite economic cooperation initiative between Russia and the two Korean states when it was first unveiled at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok.
South Korea and Russia continue to work on more immediate energy projects, including the delivery of Russian liquefied natural gas to South Korea. There are further talks of a wider free trade agreements between Moscow and Seoul that could be finalised in 2018.
South Korea’s relationship with China continues to expand along similar lines. This was affirmed during Moon Jae-in’s just completed visit to Beijing, where he held substantial talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The following is from a report on the visit, originally published by China’s official Xinhua news agency,
“Xi welcomed Moon on his state visit to China for the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries.
China and the ROK are friendly neighbors and strategic cooperation partners, Xi said.
He said the two countries have made remarkable progress in exchanges and cooperation in various fields, which has brought tremendous benefits to both sides.
There have been some twists and turns in China-ROK relations, which have provided enlightenment for both sides on how to create a better future together on the basis of mutual respect for each other’s core interests, said Xi.
He said China attaches great importance to relations with the ROK and is ready to work with the ROK to maintain the original intention of establishing diplomatic relations and take full account of the well-being of the two peoples.
Both countries should uphold the basic principle of respecting each other’s core interests and major concerns as well as the principle of treating each other as neighbors with sincerity, he said.
Xi also suggested that the two sides adhere to the principle of mutual benefit and win-win cooperation to ensure that the development of bilateral relations is on the right track.
The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) has brought broader prospects for China’s cooperation with its neighboring countries, including the ROK, said Xi.
He called on the two sides to strengthen political communication, cement the foundation of mutual trust, and make good use of the exchange mechanism between legislative bodies and political parties of the two countries.
China welcomes the ROK’s participation in the Belt and Road construction, said Xi, hoping to promote the alignment of the Belt and Road Initiative with the ROK’s development strategy.
He called for increased exchanges in areas such as youth, education, science and technology, media, sports, health and local affairs, for the long-term and stable development of bilateral ties.
Moon’s visit coincided with China’s annual memorial for the victims of the Nanjing Massacre, which fell on Wednesday. Moon extended his empathy to the victims.
This was Moon’s fifth trip to China and the first as ROK president. He expressed his admiration for China’s development achievements.
Calling the two countries important trading partners, Moon said the development of regional countries is closely linked with China’s Two Centenary Goals.
The ROK expects joint efforts with China to cement political trust and friendship between the two peoples, boost cooperation in various areas and coordination in global and regional affairs, Moon said.
The ROK hopes to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative and promote the building of a community with a shared future for mankind, he said.
The two leaders also exchanged their views on the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
“We must unswervingly uphold the goal of a nuclear-free peninsula and never allow war or chaos on the peninsula,” said Xi.
China believes that ultimately, the Korean Peninsula issue could only be solved through dialogue and consultation, he said.
China and the ROK have important common interests in maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, Xi added.
China will continue to strengthen communication and coordination with the ROK on maintaining stability and preventing wars on the Korean Peninsula and promoting peace and talks, said Xi.
He said China supports the continued improvement of the relations between the two countries on the Korean Peninsula through dialogues and contacts, which will help ease tensions and finally settle the issue.
Moon said the ROK is firmly committed to resolving the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue through peaceful means, and is willing to work with China to safeguard peace and stability in the region.
Xi reaffirmed China’s position on the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in the ROK and hoped the ROK will properly deal with the issue.
After their talks, the two leaders witnessed the signing of cooperative documents in areas such as economic and trade, green and ecological industries, environment, health, agriculture, energy and Winter Olympics”.
The report clearly indicates that each country is sincere about embracing warm relations in the 21st century, after not having official relations during the Cold War period (official relations were only established in 1992). Most crucially, Chinese media appears to be optimistic about South Korea’s participation in the One Belt–One Road initiative.
In many ways, One Belt–One Road remains one of the critical points which can insure the success of a would-be de-escalation of North/South Korean tensions. It would appear that South Korea realises this as much from its own self-interested economic perspective as it does in respect of overriding security concerns for the region and wider world.
While the US seeks to literally starve the DPRK into submission, a tactic which the Russian President has warned will never work as North Koreans would sooner “eat grass” than capitulate to international bullying, China and Russia are clear in the knowledge that only mutual opportunities can solve geo-political crises.
China implemented a “win-win” model of crisis management during its first ever modern peace initiative in a dispute involving third parties. China’s peace plan for Myanmar’s Rakhine State was announced with little fanfare, but it is already being implemented.
The key to the programme’s success was fostering cooperation among the authorities in both Myanmar and Bangladesh, through the promise of increased economic investment and trading opportunities as part of One Belt–One Road. Sure enough, while the US made threats, China’s “win-win” model, secured the trust and enthusiasm of both Naypyidaw and Dhaka–two countries currently being warned off and wooed away from One Belt–One Road by India. Chinese method has quietly secured a victory against both US threats and Indian gamesmanship.
For South Korea, a similar “win-win” model is being pursued, albeit in very different circumstances.
On the 30th of October, Beijing and Seoul reached a still undisclosed agreement regarding China’s deep concerns over the presence of US THAAD missiles on South Korean soil. Russia and China have each sought to negotiate the removal of THAAD from South Korea, as the presence of the US missiles has been illustrated as a major point of provocation against Pyongyang, while also representing a threat against China and Russia.
China maintains its opposition to THAAD and while the missiles are still in place, the fact that both China and South Korea reached an agreement on the issue, means that in this sense, China trusts the good will of the South Korean President more than that of the US, when it comes to such issues.
This good will has resulted in the positive meeting in Beijing wherein both countries agreed to increase both their short and long-term trading ties.
This clearly is not what the US wants as the US model of trade seeks to build up a network of nations which are largely dependant on the US for their security and consequently policy making, in exchange for economic deals.
The Chinese model by contrast, does not come with such heavy strings attached. China has made it clear both in word and deed that it requires nothing in terms of domestic policy making and governance, once an understanding in-line with an agreement to cooperate on trade and investment is reached.
The fact that the Chinese model is now attractive to South Korea, a nation once so firmly under the grip of the US that it was nothing more than a satellite state, is demonstrative of the fact that as US allies mature, they seek to diversify their economic and geo-political portfolios, and often at the expense of indelible ties to the US.
This is not to say that South Korea is not still a US ally and partner, it still very much is. But according to the Chinese model, there is room both for traditional allies and new partners in One Belt–One Road.
The idea that everything in geo-politics is a head-to-head competition is a Cold War relic that ironically and worryingly, continues to shape US thinking more than it did even in the Cold War when the US courted Communist states like Romania as well as left leaning non-aligned states ranging from India to Egypt. Of course, Nixon’s own rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China and his detente with the USSR, proved that even at the height of the Cold War, the US used to be less dogmatic and extreme than it has become since the early 1990s.
In such a paradigm as that which is formulated by the US of 2017, the only loser is the nation seeking to compete, rather than make the best of every situation. In this sense, the US is the clear loser and both China, Russia and South Korea are winners. In time, North Korea could be a winner too as Russia and China have renewed calls to lead a peace process that the US continues to send mixed signals about.
When it comes to an eventual peace process, the cooperation of South Korea is implicitly important. If Russia, China and South Korea end up forming a chain of trade and cooperation among each other, the only missing piece will be North Korea.
In spite of North Korea’s stance vis-a-vis the South, Pyongyang officials have stated that they do not seek hostility with the South, so long as Seoul can demonstrate that it is a sovereign state that represents something more than an instrument of aggressive US foreign policy in the region.
By cooperating with both China and Russia, South Korea can make this message increasingly clear and thus gradually win increased trust from Pyongyang.
As it is with so many other geo-political conflict zones. The logical conclusion of this scenario is that the lone obstacle to peace and cooperation is the presence of the US in East Asia.
South Korea is charting its own course, which is why the US is trying to provoke tensions on the Korean peninsula in order to prevent the outbreak of peace as a result of Seoul’s undeniable geo-political pivot.