Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 13:22 | SYDNEY
Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 13:22 | SYDNEY

Seoul Brothers


Michael Wesley


26 July 2010 12:16

A decade ago, many wondered whether the Republic of Korea would be the first United States ally to break its alliance and enter China's orbit. Even today, it's hard not to regard the RoK as a bellweather state: it has close cultural similarities with China; its trade with China is larger than its trade with Japan and the United States combined; and China is its largest export destination, with Samsung the largest single foreign investor in the China market. It's also not had the most trouble-free alliance with the US.

But a week in Seoul has shown me just how out-of-date that perception is. I was well aware that President Lee Myung Bak has tilted official policy back towards the US; what I was not prepared for was just how deep the ambivalence about China runs through Seoul's policy and business elites.

A key turning point has been the torpedoing of the RoK frigate the Cheonan. The South Koreans I've talked to this week acknowledge it was a North Korean torpedo that sank the Cheonan with an exasperated roll of the eyes — it's what they've almost come to expect from the nutters in the north. Their real anger is directed towards China, due to Beijing's refusal to play any part in investigating the incident, its denial of the validity of the report on the sinking, and its unwillingness to criticise or sanction Pyongyang over the incident.

Senior policymakers have told me that this shows that China can appear benign and responsible when there's nothing at stake, but as soon as its interests are infringed it shows its true colours. When push comes to shove, many Koreans believe, China shows how little it has internalised the most basic rules of international coexistence.

It's hard not to have a bit of sympathy for China. The Cheonan incident must have been deeply uncomfortable for Beijing. North Korea is a classic rogue ally (a wonderful term coined by Victor Cha) that can't be controlled but can cause a whole lot of trouble for its backer. Beijing is probably a bit surprised at how quickly its relationship with Seoul has deteriorated, and how shallow its apparent 'soft power' gains  over the past decade have been.

This has given extra momentum to the RoK's new foreign and security policy — which looks beyond the Korean peninsula for the first time in its history. It's transforming its alliance into a more far-reaching partnership: Korea was the largest non-NATO troop contributor to Iraq, and it's just about to insert 300 troops back into Afghanistan. It's looking beyond Northeast Asia to Southeast and South Asia, building partnerships to balance its deepening interdependence with China. And it's building strategic relationships with other US allies in the region, such as Australia and Japan.
All this means that it would be wise for Australia to pay a bit more attention to the RoK. Australia is the only country in this region that's never had to deal with a powerful China. Korea has — for several thousand years. We've got much to learn about how it's done — with pragmatic accommodation, but a strong sense of what you stand for and what you won't stand for.

One of Kevin Rudd's unheralded achievements was building a stronger relationship with Seoul. They're paying much more attention to Australia up here than we pay to the RoK. We would ignore Seoul's interest in building the bilateral relationship to our great cost.

(Michael Wesley visited Korea at the invitation of the Korea Foundation).

Photo by Flickr user privatenobby, used under a Creative Commons licence.