August 25, 2020 | Insight

Beijing Seeks to Divide Seoul and Washington

August 25, 2020 | Insight

Beijing Seeks to Divide Seoul and Washington

Last week, the South Korean and Chinese governments held high-level meetings to enhance coordination on North Korea policy. Beijing seeks to erode Seoul’s commitment to working with the United States to escalate pressure on North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

In a meeting between South Korea’s new minister of unification, Lee In-young, and China’s ambassador to South Korea, Xing Haiming, Lee asked Xing for China’s help in resuming inter-Korean dialogue and engagement. Later that week, Suh Hoon, South Korea’s national security advisor, met with Yang Jiechie, a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s politburo, to discuss Chinese President Xi Jinping’s possible visit to South Korea and China’s role in helping restart inter-Korean dialogue. Yang also shared Beijing’s position on several disputes between China and the United States. South Korean press reports speculated that Yang sought Seoul’s support for Beijing on these matters.

Dr. Jung Pak, a Korea expert at the Brookings Institution, has assessed that China views closer ties with South Korea “as a critical part of its effort to establish its preeminence in Northeast Asia” while also reducing U.S. military and diplomatic influence in the region. Beijing seeks to achieve these objectives by exploiting gaps in the U.S.-South Korea alliance to heighten Seoul’s mistrust of Washington as a partner.

While Washington often employs a pressure-based approach to bring North Korea to the negotiating table, the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in prioritizes North-South engagement to rekindle goodwill between the two Koreas. Unification Minister Lee In-young voiced his disagreement with Washington by arguing that Seoul must “overcome sanctions” by using positive incentives to solve the North Korea problem. He even blamed a U.S.-South Korea joint working group for obstructing inter-Korean relations by focusing only on sanctions enforcement.

The Chinese government has a long record of enabling Pyongyang’s sanctions evasion schemes. Complex networks of North Korean front companies and Chinese trading companies conduct illicit business in sanctioned goods, directly funding the Kim regime.

Beijing turns a blind eye toward North Korea’s illicit activities because this revenue provides a critical lifeline ensuring that the Kim regime does not become unstable or collapse. From the perspective of the Chinese government, the North Korean regime’s instability or collapse would most likely lead to a U.S. intervention to reunify the Korean peninsula, thereby eclipsing China’s regional influence.

Furthermore, Beijing likely found Seoul’s recent outreach to be fortuitous as North Korea experiences an economic crisis. The growing impact of sanctions; natural disasters such as rampant flooding, which has negatively affected agricultural production; and the Kim regime’s deliberate border closures to cut off all trade in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have all contributed to the country’s economic distress. In an unprecedented admission, Kim Jong Un said last week that his economic policies have failed in the past year.

By working with Seoul, the Chinese leadership now has an opportunity not only to boost North Korea’s economy, but also to augment Beijing’s diplomatic influence over South Korea at America’s expense.

Mathew Ha is a research analyst focused on North Korea and China at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Mathew, CMPP, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Mathew on Twitter @MatJunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


China Military and Political Power North Korea Sanctions and Illicit Finance U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy