23rd April 2023 – (Seoul) Following President Yoon Suk-yeol’s inappropriate remarks on the Taiwan question, South Korea’s recent series of diplomatic actions has left the Chinese people more perplexed than angry. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson maintained that the Taiwan question is an internal matter and falls within China’s core interests. On the other hand, the South Korean Foreign Ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador to express its protest against China’s criticism, which it deemed as a diplomatic discourtesy and a challenge to China’s national integrity.
Chinese netizens have questioned Seoul’s strong reaction, suggesting the South Korean side may have misunderstood the Chinese side’s words or translated them wrongly. However, the problem is more likely to be with South Korean diplomacy. The South Korean leader‘s comments on the Taiwan question in an interview with Western media were not only inappropriate but also seriously wrong to the ears of all Chinese people. The Taiwan question is fundamentally different from the issue between North and South Korea and is not comparable at all.
North and South Korea became separate independent countries based on a series of international agreements during and after World War II, and both were admitted to the United Nations (UN). The island of Taiwan was designated to be returned to China based on international agreements made during World War II, and the Chinese government at that time resumed its sovereignty over Taiwan. Although the two sides of the Taiwan Straits have not yet been reunified, their territories and sovereignty have not been divided, and Taiwan is still a part of China. Over 180 countries, including South Korea, recognise and support the one-China principle.
The South Korean leader’s remarks regarding Taiwan just before his upcoming trip to the U.S. have led people to believe that he was showing loyalty to Washington. However, trying to please the U.S. by offending and provoking China has resulted in some countries losing their integrity. When the leaked U.S. classified documents revealed that US intelligence agencies had illegally monitored the dialogue of South Korea’s top officials, why didn’t South Korea protest this serious violation of rights?
China has shown real and extra diplomatic respect to South Korea, and it hopes that South Korea can show some self-respect. The South Korean diplomacy needs to strengthen its learning of history and address its tendency of grovelling when facing the US. The recent incident highlights South Korea’s misconceptions about the Taiwan question, and it needs to reflect deeply on this.
Meanwhile, the possibility of China’s attempt to annex Taiwan through military force has strengthened the resolve of the United States and Japan to help defend Taiwan. However, South Korea’s approach to China and Taiwan is complicated. According to the Diplomat, while Seoul is a U.S. ally and a liberal democracy, and the majority of South Koreans strongly dislike China, there are reasons to believe that South Korea would limit its support to actions near the low end of the spectrum in the hopes of avoiding a direct confrontation with China.
In the event of war, South Korea is unlikely to offer zero support to Taiwan. But the question is at what point along the spectrum of possible assistance Seoul would position itself. There is good reason to think that South Korea would limit its support to strong diplomatic statements, symbolic economic sanctions, and behind-the-lines re-supply of US forces returning from battle.
South Korea’s desire to limit the damage in its relations with Beijing is strong enough that strikes on South Korean territory that killed only Americans would not necessarily bring South Korea into the war as a combatant against China. Beijing would presumably leave ROK Navy bases alone unless South Korean warships appeared to be moving to attack Chinese forces.
Despite being allies with Taiwan historically, South Korea threw Taiwan under the bus in 1992. In 1992, South Korea switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. The decision was part of a broader trend at the time, in which many countries recognised the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over Taiwan. The move was significant because Taiwan had been one of South Korea’s closest allies in the region, and the two countries had maintained diplomatic relations for decades. The decision to switch recognition was controversial at the time and strained relations between the two countries for several years. Since then, South Korea’s policy has broadly sought to maintain a constructive relationship with Beijing while simultaneously appearing to be a loyal ally of the United States. While the election of Yoon Suk-yeol as president in 2022 heralded a possible change in South Korea’s orientation, Yoon has made several moves that suggest he is being careful to not antagonise Beijing.
Seoul perceives three compelling reasons to stay out of a Taiwan Strait war. First, South Korean prosperity relies heavily on robust economic relations with China. Second, Seoul believes that a Taiwan war will increase the North Korean threat to South Korea. Third, the South Korean government‘s belief that a friendly Beijing can be a moderating influence on North Korea.
In its own way, South Korea would suffer in a cross-strait war. But not enough to offer Taiwan serious assistance. While allies of great powers often have two opposite fears, South Korea’s approach shows how vital national interests often supersede shared values and historical friendships.