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The Cheonan Sinking and President Lee Myung-Bak's China Agenda
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I have a post up at Asia Times on South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s efforts to exploit the geopolitical potential of the Cheonan sinking.

It’s called “The Cheonan Sinking…and Korea Rising“.

President Lee has grand plans for South Korea, as indicated by a January 2010 Newsweek piece entitled, Lee Myung-bak wants to move his country to the center of the world.

This piece, which lists no author, is a gold mine of tin-eared PR flummery.

Lee is one of only two former CEOs to lead a major trading power—Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi is the other—and he runs South Korea like the just-do-it boss he was at Hyundai, where staff called him “the Bulldozer.” At Hyundai he led a company known for fearless forays into foreign markets…

I’m afraid that neither the interests of journalism nor propaganda are served by comparing one’s subject to Silvio Berlusconi in the same sentence.

The mind is immediately overwhelmed by the Mussolini-meets-Tiberius-as-envisaged-by-Fellini image of Italy’s pocket dictator, thereby undercutting any appreciation of Lee’s bold and visionary free-market savvy.

I also tended to dismiss the claim that South Korea–which I perceive as largely a Japan Inc. clone with powerful, export-driven industrial groupings feasting on preferential access to credit and political influence–is perceived as “a dynamic alternative to both China’s mighty command economy and Japan’s no growth economy”.

As to

South Korea, says U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens, is “the best example in the post–World War II era of a country that has overcome enormous obstacles to achieve this kind of success.”

Better than Germany? Japan? The Czech Republic? Singapore? Taiwan?

I was so unsure of the piece’s provenance–was it an unidentified entry in an ROK advertising supplement, I wondered?–that I didn’t use it as a source.

However, what I did use as a source was an April 12 interview with Lee Myung-bak by Fred Hiatt, jefe of Newsweek’s parent company, the Washington Post.

The Newsweek article (or the supportive editorial attitude behind it) may well have been an enabling factor for the boon of the lengthy, exclusive interview, a softball-fest that enabled President Lee to make the same case in the article, together with some remarkably pointed swipes at China.

The interesting points are Lee Myung-bak’s eagerness to raise the ROK’s profile as a world power, and present his country as the politically and economically vigorous successor to sclerotic Japan as America’s go-to guy in North Asia and counterweight to the PRC.

I analyze the South Korean response to the Cheonan sinking in this context.

President Lee clearly hopes to use the sinking as a 9/11-type event to galvanize support for himself, his party, and his worldview: confrontation with North Korea, partnership with the United States, and distancing from China.

Lee’s outreach to the West–represented both by the composition of the international investigative team, which excluded China and Russia, and the desire to take this matter to the UN Security Council instead of mediation through the auspices of the Six Party Talks anchored by China–was undoubtedly noticed by Beijing…

…as was South Korea’s push to use the incident as justification for fattening the South Korean defense budget.

However, because of the immense economic ties between the ROK and the PRC, both President Lee and China have taken pains to avoid overt friction over the issue.

What makes this interesting to me is the reunification angle.

The Kim regime has been around in Pyongyang for so long that, in the United States, the potential demise of the DPRK is little more than an interesting abstraction.

But as China and the ROK become more and more prosperous, the burden of succoring the North’s twenty-three-million or so impoverished inhabitants looks less and less onerous.

As the Chinese and South Korean economies mature, the untapped potential of North Korea’s population and resources look more and more attractive…

…and the interests and potential opposition of Kim Jung Il’s isolated regime, bomb or no bomb, look less and less consequential.

Korea reunited and politically and militarily integrated under the leadership of Seoul would be a genuine alternative to Japan as a powerful U.S. ally and give China a lot to think about.

So I look at President Lee’s moves on the Cheonan in the context of a reunification endgame that might begin sooner rather than later.

I speculate that South Korea would want to put North Korea into some kind of political receivership under UN auspices as a prelude to complete integration into the current ROK political structure

This would fit with President Lee’s desire to place North Korea–and not just its nuclear and proliferation-related activities–on the Security Council agenda.

China clearly prefers continued regional muddling through the Six Party Talks and might still hope for the emergence of a authoritarian, economically more liberal, but politically independent successor regime in Pyongyang.

But I think that China recognizes that the post-Kim leadership cadre in Pyongyang is a discounted and wasting asset and Beijing would probably pay an an unacceptable political price by openly obstructing Korean reunification.

China’s leadership may be starting to think about how it might have to coexist with a pro-US economic powerhouse of 65 million people literally at its doorstep.

(Republished from China Matters by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Cheonan, China, Kim Jung Il, Lee Myung-bak 
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  1. daniel says: • Website


    I don’t know if it’s entirely appropriate, but it might be worth trying to analyse the prospects for Korean reunification by comparing with the real-world example of German reunification.

    Obviously one would need to take into account the fact East Germany wasn’t dependent on food aid, there was a functional and reasonably modern infrastructure in place, the per-capita income disparity was only about 2.5 to 1, as opposed to at least 30 to 1, and the population ratio was 4 to 1 as opposed to 2 to 1.

    I rather tend to think that without some 50 years of intense economic preparation, any sort of re-unification is going to be an absolute nightmare – economic, social and political – for South Korea.

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