From the general political aspects of PRC-ROK relations, let us move on to the “sensitive” ones. The main one is the THAAD issue, which this article will talk about in more detail. More specifically, the issue of whether the new leadership in the ROK will continue the so-called “agreement of the three no’s,” in response to which Beijing has rolled back most of the informal sanctions.
“Three no’s” mean the following: no additional THAAD deployments beyond what is already deployed, no participation in the US-led missile defense program and no formation of a trilateral political and military alliance with the US and Japan. Moreover, the THAAD is formally in a “temporary” deployment state, pending an environmental assessment of all impacts.
It should be recalled that THAAD was a hot topic in South Korea’s presidential race, with the opposition candidate and later president offering to deploy an additional THAAD battery in the ROK among his campaign promises, while his ruling party rival accused him of using national security for political purposes. The Yoon camp argued that an additional missile defense system was needed to protect some 20 million people in the metropolitan area, pointing out that the existing THAAD unit in Seongju could not protect a densely populated area with a limited range. Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung called Yoon’s promises a “reckless” idea, pointing out that additional THAAD deployment could provoke China and lead to another campaign of economic retaliation. Analysts, however, noted that Yoon’s promises of additional THAAD deployment were aimed at appealing to conservative voters against the backdrop of North Korea’s then missile tests.
On July 25, 2022, Foreign Minister Park Jin deplored the “three no’s” policy. “Since this is an agenda relevant to our national security sovereignty, we should be making the judgment ourselves. It is hard to accept China’s demand that we should keep the promise,” he said, calling on Beijing to play a more constructive role in North Korea’s denuclearization. In fact, Park stressed that the “three no’s” were simply an explanation of the South Korean government’s position on the issue, not a formal agreement between the two countries.
Shortly afterwards, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian noted that “South Korea expressed its respectful stance on the THAAD issue in 2017,” which played an important role in cooperation and deepening mutual trust. Zhao added that the new leader “can’t turn a blind eye to past debts” and “a commitment made should be a commitment kept despite change of government. When it comes to major sensitive issues concerning the security of its neighbors, the ROK side needs to continue to act prudently and find a fundamental solution to the issues”.
The ROK media criticized Zhao () for pressuring the Yoon Suk-yeol administration and encroaching on national sovereignty. “South Korea has the exclusive right to choose to deploy THAAD as a military tactic to deal with the threats posed by potential nuclear and missile attacks by North Korea. If China sincerely wants to see peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in East Asia, it must first actively convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.” Then Seoul will have no reason to push for the deployment of THAAD. In addition, China has installed a large radar network in Shandong province with a longer detection range than THAAD radars to target the Korean Peninsula and Japan.
The next round of discussion on the issue took place on August 9, 2022 during Park Jin’s visit to China, where he held talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. When Wang reminded his counterpart about the “three no’s,” Park replied that the “three no’s” were an expression of the Moon Jae-in administration’s personal approach and it was nowhere in the treaties. Seoul will therefore resolve all issues on this matter on the basis of its own interests and in consultation with the parties directly involved, i.e. with the US.
Further, however, Seoul and Beijing gave different interpretations of what was said. According to Park, he “made it clear to the Chinese side that the THAAD deployment is a matter of our security and sovereignty against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats,” but both sides share the view that the THAAD issue should not be a stumbling block in South Korea-China relations. On August 10, however, Wang Wenbin, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, claimed that in addition to the “three no’s” principle, South Korea had agreed to limit the operation of the battery.
Experts felt that the issue may have been about radar distance and said Beijing’s claims appeared to be aimed at putting pressure on the Yoon administration, which is pushing to strengthen the Seoul-Washington alliance and normalize the operation of THAAD.
On August 11, the ROK Presidential Administration stated that “THAAD is a self-defensive defense tool aimed at protecting our people’s lives and safety from North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats and a matter of security sovereignty that can never be subject to negotiation”. The Ministry of Defense also made it clear that the THAAD issue is an issue that cannot be put to consultation with a foreign country. In addition, Minister of Defense Lee Jong-seop has pledged to speed up the normalization of the THAAD system.
The media, on the other hand, was littered with headlines such as “No to three no’s” or “China should respect Korea’s sovereignty”: “Beijing went too far in putting forward irrational demands that could lead to interference in a sovereign state’s internal affairs.” China was rebuked for double standards: “Wang proposed both sides take care of each other’s concerns, but it is contradictory of China to cover up for North Korea’s ballistic missile launches, which threaten South Korea.”
On August 23, Chinese Ambassador to the ROK Xing Haiming urged the countries to make efforts to respect each other’s core interests and issues of grave concern amid tensions over Seoul’s quest to normalize THAAD.
Another problem that comes up from time to time is the Russian and Chinese military aircraft entering the Korea Air Defense Identification Zone (KADIZ). The air-defense identification zone is not ROK territorial airspace and often overlaps with similar zones, but in the South Korean media its violation always causes a stir, as if it were an invasion of economic zones or the country’s airspace.
On November 19, 2021, two Chinese and seven Russian military aircraft entered KADIZ without warning. The ROK Air Force deployed its warplanes to the scene, after which the Chinese authorities informed the South Korean military that their aircraft had conducted the exercise.
On March 23, one Chinese military aircraft entered KADIZ, leaving two minutes later.
On March 24, 2022, two Russian military aircraft entered KADIZ over the East Sea northwest of Ulleungdo Island in an area where the two countries’ marking zones overlap. Their flight lasted half an hour. As they approached the identification zone, the South Korean Air Force sent fighter jets to escort them. The Russian side had not previously reported the flight in question and the pilots did not respond to attempts to contact them.
On May 25, 2022, Seoul expressed through diplomatic channels its regret to Beijing and Moscow over the incident the day before when 6 Russian and Chinese military aircraft flew into KADIZ. The overflight of PRC and Russian bomber and fighter jets is believed to have been linked to the launch of the US economic initiative IPEF and the QUAD forum of participating countries in Japan.
As can be seen, the issues are quite acute and are not going anywhere, and in the following articles the author will talk about Sinophobia in the masses and cultural exchanges.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.