This was the one-word answer by a senior South Korean official, when asked directly if Beijing’s political interference was a threat to South Korean democracy. In multiple discussions held last week in Seoul, South Korean officials either discounted concerns of China’s political interference, or declined to directly address them. This reluctance is entirely understandable. Their country is, quite literally, caught between the U.S. and China, in an economic and geopolitical web that would be almost impossible to untangle without enormous damage to South Korea’s well-being and the political standing of the current government.
These conversations pointed to three big factors shaping the discussion on China’s political influence in South Korea:
First, South Korea remains in a uniquely risky geopolitical position relative to China. The Seoul metro area lies only a little more than 200 miles across the Yellow Sea from China, and the two countries do huge trade volumes—more than South Korea’s trade with the United States and Japan combined. China’s influence in North Korea also makes it an indispensable partner for any potential peace settlement with the North. This makes China especially important now, because of the Moon Jae-in government’s commitment to a sustained inter-Korean peace process.
Second, perhaps even more important than the peace process is the potential for the U.S.-China trade war to damage South Korea’s position in global technological supply chains. There is a palpable fear in Seoul that the U.S. government’s ban on Huawei could become a “second THAAD”—referring to the missile defense system deployed by the United States south of Seoul, which prompted the PRC party-state to impose damaging, undeclared economic sanctions against South Korea. The widening U.S.-China trade conflict could damage South Korean tech giants like Samsung, which sit at the center of technological supply chains that are now beginning to unravel. In the wake of the Huawei ban, China has redoubled efforts to make itself radically less dependent on U.S.-sourced components.
Third, despite all this, South Koreans at all levels of society appear increasingly aware that growing economic ties to China have created political and security vulnerabilities. That was brought home by the THAAD controversy. As one Korean official put it, “THAAD was a great lesson for everyone in South Korea, that [China] can use their economic leverage to create a situation where they can get what they want.” In describing South Korean thinking post-THAAD, another senior official vividly compared dealing with China to a no-rules, no-holds-barred UFC match—where anything goes and the blows can come from any direction—while saying negotiating with the U.S. was more like boxing—you’re going to get hit, but at least there are rules.
Beijing’s apparent willingness to apply coercive economic sanctions in the THAAD case could indicate a similar willingness to employ some of the same tools of political interference seen in other instances around the world. The next step for South Korea should be to begin discussing more openly some of the ways Beijing might seek to interfere in its democracy, as has happened in other countries in the region. That’s not happening right now (albeit for understandable reasons). Beijing’s deep economic ties to South Korea could continue to inhibit a robust, whole-of-society discussion on how best to respond; as Australia’s case has shown, countries that have such conversations can pay a significant economic price. The United States and other democratic partners of South Korea need to be prepared to facilitate a conversation about PRC interference in a forthright, respectful fashion, and should be thinking creatively about how to shield South Korea from economic retaliation should such a discussion occur.