See-Won Byun is an assistant professor of international relations at San Francisco State University. Her research centers on Chinese politics and international relations in Asia. She focused on US-Asia policy issues as a research associate at The Asia Foundation’s Center for US-Korea Policy in Washington, and non-resident Kelly Fellow of Pacific Forum CSIS. Before joining SF State, she taught Asian politics and international relations at Bates College. She received a Ph.D. in political science and M.A. in international affairs from The George Washington University, an M.A. in international studies from Yonsei University, and B.A. in economics from Brown University.
Articles by See-Won Byun
Beijing and Seoul marked 30 years of diplomatic ties on Aug. 24 as South Korea transitioned to a new administration under President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office in May. Although early high-level exchanges reaffirmed partnership, the two leaderships confront growing pressures from US-China competition, economic uncertainty, and public hostility. Domestic priorities in China in light of the 20th Party Congress and South Korea’s shift to conservative rule amplify these concerns. The impact of US-China rivalry on the China-South Korea relationship extends from security to economic coordination, including approaches to THAAD and global supply chains, and export competition, especially in semiconductors, challenges new Xi Jinping-Yoon economic agreements. Moreover, public hostility is strongest among South Korea’s younger generation, raising pessimistic prospects for future China-South Korea ties.
Despite mixed signals, false starts, and the continued absence of leader-level meetings marking the recovery of economic ties between China and North Korea, geopolitical developments have pushed the two countries closer together. Such engagement features mutual reinforcement of each other’s positions on issues of vital interest and solidarity in response to US policies.
The first four months of 2022 marked a turn toward difficult terrain in the China-South Korea relationship, including the challenge of managing conflicting expressions of patriotism during the Beijing Olympics. The Olympics opening ceremonies were attended by National Assembly Speaker Park Byung-seug, South Korea’s second-highest-ranking official by protocol, despite the US imposition of a “diplomatic boycott.” North Korea’s dozen missile tests since January 2022 included a “new” ICBM launch in March ahead of the 110thanniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth and Yoon Suk-yeol’s presidential inauguration. The latest tests drove China-South Korea dialogue, new US sanctions, and reassertions from Beijing that US actions remain the decisive factor in resolving the peninsula problem. Beijing’s hosting of the Olympics and Pyongyang’s commemorations of Kim anniversaries presented opportunities for jointly reaffirming China-North Korea friendship. Despite signs of rebounding economic activity after the resumption of cross-border freight train operations in January, China’s COVID-19 lockdowns remain a source of uncertainty.
South Korea’s election of pro-US opposition candidate Yoon Suk-yeol generated a mixture of anxiety and veiled warnings from Chinese commentators. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call to Yoon two weeks following the election was hailed as an unprecedented gesture of respect from a Chinese leader to an incoming South Korean president. But Yoon’s first congratulatory calls after his electoral victory were from Quad members as well as the United Kingdom, reflecting a distinct South Korean tilt toward the United States amid the China-US strategic rivalry. Yoon’s campaign platform posited a positive-sum relationship between his pledges to restore a “comprehensive strategic alliance” with the United States and to establish relations with China built on “mutual respect.” But it remains to be seen how Beijing will respond to the Yoon administration’s shift toward an unambiguous alignment with the US.
During the waning months of 2021, China and South Korea worked together to stabilize and strengthen their economic relationship and the Moon administration reached out to China as part of its full-court press to achieve an end-of-war declaration prior to the end of Moon’s term in May of 2022. Through several foreign minister-level meetings between Chung Eui-young and Wang Yi, including Wang’s visit to Seoul for a meeting with President Moon, an exchange held in Tianjin between national security advisors, and regular bilateral economic consultations, the two countries improved economic cooperation and sustained close consultation on peninsula-related issues. The most significant outcomes of these discussions included the first release of a major Korean movie in Chinese theaters since 2015 and ongoing efforts to bilaterally support the digital, technological, and climate change dimensions of Sino-South Korean economic cooperation. China offered support for Moon administration efforts to end the Korean War through pursuit of phased and synchronized actions and discouraged relevant countries from taking destabilizing unilateral moves.
Meanwhile, North Korea’s missile tests in September-October frustrated hope for regional diplomacy as Beijing and Pyongyang jointly commemorated their 72-year-old “joint struggle to defend and glorify socialism” by marking national and bilateral anniversaries. Their official statements, however, lacked substantive outcomes in China-DPRK diplomatic exchanges. Post-pandemic trade remained stalled as both leaderships turned to self-reliance in their national development strategy.
South Korea President Moon Jae-in’s meeting with Joe Biden and his participation in the G7 summit during May and June focused attention on Seoul’s strategy of balancing relations with China and the United States. While Beijing disapproved of the US-ROK joint statement released after the May summit, Chinese state media praised the Moon administration’s relative restraint in joining US-led coalition-building against China. Official remarks on core political and security issues, however, raised mutual accusations of interference in internal affairs. US-China competition and South Korean domestic political debates amplify Seoul’s dilemma regarding its strategic alignment ahead of the country’s 2022 presidential elections.
The China-North Korea relationship turned to commemorative diplomacy regarding summit meetings between Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping in 2018 and 2019 in the absence of new meetings in 2021. Kim offered hearty congratulations to Xi on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party and both sides affirmed the value and historic contributions of the Sino-DPRK Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the treaty in 1961. Political messages underscoring China-North Korean strategic alignment included a North Korean statement affirming shared strategic priorities regarding both the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan and Chinese statements criticizing the continuation of annual US-South Korean military exercises in the context of rising China-US strategic rivalry.
China’s relations with North and South Korea gained momentum in the first four months of 2021. China-North Korea relations were propelled by an exchange of messages between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping around North Korea’s successful convening of the Worker’s Party of Korea’s (WPK) Eighth Party Congress, the appointment of former North Korean Trade Minister Ri Ryong Nam as North Korea’s new ambassador to China, and another round of messages in March that emphasized the importance of close relations. In a Jan. 21 Cabinet meeting, South Korean President Moon Jae-in pledged to develop relations with China to new heights, and in a Jan. 26 telephone call with Moon, Xi expressed support for Korean denuclearization and joint development of China-South Korea relations. China and South Korea held consultations on maritime enforcement cooperation, defense lines of communication, health security, and free trade negotiations.
PRC State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s November visit to Seoul produced limited substantive results while signaling Beijing’s deeper strategic intentions toward the United States’ Asian allies. China’s commemorations of the Korean War’s 70th anniversary in October provided reassurances to North Korea while triggering a war of words with South Koreans, ranging from the foreign ministry to the K-pop group BTS. On social media, the history controversy was a prelude to wider cultural clashes on a host of issues. While the repercussions of COVID-19 and US-China trade tensions challenge China and South Korea’s economic agenda, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership’s signing in November raised prospects for regional multilateralism. Meanwhile, North Korea’s self-imposed quarantine resulted in a precipitous drop in North Korean imports from China according to China’s official trade statistics. UN Panel of Experts-led monitoring of North Korean off-the-books exports of coal and sand to China drew harsh US criticisms and catalyzed the announcement of a US Treasury-administered rewards program for reporting on primarily Chinese entities engaged in illicit trade with North Korea. Coupled with the incoming Biden administration’s envisioned regional architecture and the campaign’s declared reliance on multilateral approaches to North Korea, Asia’s multilateral initiatives may heighten Seoul’s US-China dilemma.
The Korean Peninsula appears divided in what some analysts call a “new cold war” as US-China tensions escalate over issues ranging from COVID-19 to Hong Kong. Washington’s new China strategy prompted Pyongyang to voice its alignment with China while heightening Seoul’s dilemma of choosing sides. As the North Korean economy suffered the combined effects of ongoing sanctions, the global pandemic, and severe weather, a leaked UN report in August sharpened international criticism of China’s sanctions enforcement. The region’s current domestic political priorities reinforce Beijing, Seoul, and Washington’s trilemma over alternative approaches to DPRK denuclearization.
The outbreak of COVID-19, first in China and then in South Korea, placed plans for a highly anticipated summit between Xi Jinping and Moon Jae-in on hold. Beijing and Seoul’s priorities focused on fighting the virus together through aid exchanges, a new inter-agency mechanism led by their foreign ministries, and multilateral cooperation with Japan and ASEAN. As cases spread across borders, political frictions emerged over entry bans and relief supplies. The public health crisis triggered efforts to mitigate its socioeconomic repercussions, raising questions over long-term US influence. The virus also dramatically interrupted the normal diplomatic and economic interactions between China and North Korea.
North Korea conducted five rounds of missile launches in this period as prospects for resuming dialogue with Washington dwindled. Although People’s Republic of China State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi praised Pyongyang’s diplomatic efforts during his September visit to the North, US-DPRK talks in October made no progress. The nuclear impasse loomed over 70th anniversary celebrations of China-DPRK diplomatic ties, highlighting the expanding friendship Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un envisioned last June. Amid concerns over escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula, Beijing and Moscow proposed a draft UN resolution in December calling for the partial lifting of sanctions.
For their part, Beijing and Seoul advanced their strategic partnership through talks between Xi and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the China-ROK-Japan summit in December, Wang’s visit to Seoul earlier that month, and the resumption of defense talks in October. But Moon’s latest China visit drew much domestic criticism for failing to secure Beijing’s cooperation on bilateral and regional priorities. Wang’s December visit to Seoul, meanwhile, was most remembered for his attacks on US “unilateralism” and “bullying.” US-China trade tensions and public clashes over Hong Kong present new challenges for the China-ROK partnership.
Beijing and Pyongyang celebrate 70 years of diplomatic relations this year. Xi Jinping traveled to Pyongyang in June for a fifth summit with Kim Jong Un, the first visit to North Korea by China’s top leader in 14 years. The meeting aimed to advance the bilateral friendship to a new phase of comprehensive development and drive regional coordination on the Korean Peninsula. In contrast, Xi’s 40-minute meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka seemed to marginalize Moon, subordinate the relationship with South Korea, and place Xi as an intermediary between North Korea and the rest of world. Pyongyang’s missile tests, however, showed the limited effects of such diplomacy, even after surprise exchanges between US, North Korean, and South Korean leaders in Panmunjom on June 30. The current expansion of China-DPRK political, military, economic, and cultural exchanges also presents challenges to sanctions implementation and human rights promotion.