Letter from Seoul: China and South Korea vs. Japan and North Korea?

We welcomed President Xi Jinping from China this week. It was the first visit by President Xi to Seoul after he took on the role as China's leader. China hopes to promote its benign image in South Korea (the Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan certainly played her role) and to increase influence in the Korean Peninsula vis-a-vis the U.S. A South Korea-China free trade agreement will be signed within next six months to enhance economic partnership to a higher degree.

South Korea, as the strong ally of the U.S., is now faced with the growing challenge of the competing "G2 diplomacy" between U.S. and China in Northeast Asia. We are in the middle.

North Korea under Kim Jong-un rattled his sabers with ballistic missile launches into the sea to protest Xi Jinping's high-profile visit to Seoul (even before visiting Pyongyang) and to pressure the Japanese and Americans to remove sanctions due to nuclear tests. Meanwhile, Pyongyang has begun to break its isolation by starting to negotiate with Japan for the return of Japanese abductees, diplomatic rapprochement, and financial benefits of eased sanctions. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is certainly taking risks in dealing with a hostile North Korea, apparently for domestic political gain.

South Korea's relations with Japan, by contrast, have gotten complicated due to historical issues and Japan's re-militarization policy.

The Park Geun-hye government demands genuine repentance, an official apology and proper compensation from Abe government similar to what post-war Germany did for its war victims. The Abe government's new collective self-defense policy is also creating tension between South Korea and Japan because of concern about Japan's rearmament.

The "cold war" between Seoul and Tokyo these days is seriously impairing the basis of pragmatic partnership based on democracy and the free market system. This is creating opportunities for China to pursue a "united front" with South Korea against Japan over past history, including the Pacific War.

Xi Jinping boldly proposed in his Seoul visit that China and South Korea should jointly commemorate the 70th anniversary next year of the end of the "anti-Japanese War" in Asia in 1945. President Park cautiously reserved her answer to the request.

Russia has been collaborating with China more closely in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis as we witnessed in the 30-year natural gas supply deal between the two giants of the Eurasian continent. Russia also has been actively investing into North Korea to secure a key strategic economic outlet to the Pacific Ocean. Russia is taking advantage of the recently strained North Korea-China relations in the aftermath of the sudden execution of Jang Song-thaek, previously the second powerful man in Pyongyang acting as the political and business intermediary between North Korea and China.

So, here is the upshot: China's continuous rise and China's active strategic engagement with South Korea are increasingly challenging the basis of the U.S.-Japan-South Korea cooperative triangle in Northeast Asia. South Korea, on its part, is also upgrading its cooperation with China on an economic partnership, a political dialogue (to persuade North Korea to renounce its nuclear ambition) and on the historical posture vis-a-vis Japan.

South Korea is inevitably caught between escalating Sino-Japanese conflicts. In response, Japan is approaching North Korea (and Russia too) for settling the old disputes and expanding strategic interests.

We are in the middle of a Hobbesian transformation of the post-Cold War regional order in Northeast Asia. South Korea stands at a major crossroads.

Now, we are waiting for Pope Francis to visit Korea next month to bless us and pray for a peaceful national unification in the future.