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The US and South Korea staged joint air drills over the Yellow Sea on March 6. Photo: EPA-EFE

South Korea says boosting 3-way defence ties with US, Japan won’t ‘antagonise’ China

  • A high-ranking government official said the initiative was aimed at tackling North Korea and expressed hope it will not affect Seoul’s strong trade ties with Beijing
  • But as Yoon prepares for summit talks with Biden and Kishida, analysts say the move could ‘put the South in the front line of the new Cold War confrontation’
South Korea
South Korea has insisted it will not “antagonise” China despite the bolstering of a three-way defence cooperation with the United States and Japan as Seoul and Tokyo move closer to ease a long-standing dispute over wartime forced labour to tackle the threats posed by North Korea.

“The trilateral defence cooperation is aimed to preserve peace on the Korean peninsula in the face of the continuing threats from the North,” a high-ranking government official said on Friday.

“The strengthening of the three-way defence cooperation does not mean [South Korea] is antagonising China,” he said, adding Beijing will remain its top trade partner for years to come.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also hinted that South Korea would not get involved in a possible conflict between the US and China over Taiwan.

He repeated Foreign Minister Park Jin’s earlier statement that “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is crucial to maintain tranquillity in the northeast Asian region”.

South Korea faces backlash for ‘humiliating’ deal over Japan forced labour row

Analysts said the existence of different perceptions and policies on China among the three countries could potentially weaken the unity of the latest security plan.

Seoul has adopted a more conciliatory posture toward China in the hope it can help rein in Pyongyang, while Washington and Tokyo seek to keep Beijing in check.

The official said the government is taking steps to ensure that the strengthening of cooperation with US and Japanese companies “does not become a zero-sum game” and disrupt South Korea’s strong trade ties with China.

His comments came as South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol this week unveiled a plan to end a protracted dispute over Japan’s wartime forced labour. While the victims condemned the decision, the US welcomed it and invited Yoon to Washington for a state visit in April.
Japan also signalled it was ready to bury the hatchet as it announced Yoon will hold a summit meeting with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida next week in Tokyo.


South Korea, instead of Japanese firms, to compensate families of WWII forced labour victims

South Korea, instead of Japanese firms, to compensate families of WWII forced labour victims

Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University, said the March 16-17 talks will be an attempt to turn the page on the fraught Seoul-Tokyo ties.

Easley said though domestic political compulsions took centre stage in the past, the scope of Japan-South Korea cooperation is much larger, including trade, deterring North Korea and helping to build guardrails for China’s increasingly assertive international role.

Victor Cha, vice-president and Korea Chair at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, noted that Yoon’s coming summit with US President Joe Biden “will mark Seoul’s return to a prominent role in Asia and beyond.”

“[South] Korea went through a period when it was disconnected from Japan, hedging with China, and solely focused on North Korea. Yoon has changed this in a very short period, bringing Korea back into the fold,” Yonhap quoted him as saying.

High hopes for Japan-Korea tourism and trade as forced labour row set to ease

Cha added Yoon prevented the trilateral relations with the US from plunging into the “deep abyss” by swiftly resolving the forced labour row. He said “North Korea, China and Russia would have loved it” if the issue had dragged on.

Professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies was sceptical about the new security push, saying South Korea would not gain much from the initiative and it could result in more provocation from the North.

“For the US, the trilateral cooperation would help rein in China, but this would give more reasons for the North to bolster its nuclear arsenal.

“And South Korea would have to play a role as a soldier serving in the front line of the new Cold War confrontation. What kind of benefits would this bring to Seoul’s security?” Yang asked.

North Korea conducted an artillery drill at an undisclosed location on March 9. Photo: KCNA/KNS via dpa

Kim Jong-dae, a defence analyst and former lawmaker of the pro-labour Justice Party, said the security arrangement appears to be geared toward challenging China rather than bringing North Korea to heel.

“South Korea wants to curb threats from the North through the trilateral defence cooperation, but it would have no choice but play its own roles in restraining Beijing in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea,” Kim said.

“[For Washington and Beijing], the new defence regime is a knife to slaughter the cow in the form of China rather than the hen in the form of North Korea.”