South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s formal announcement of a robust set of countermeasures against North Korea in response to the sinking of the Cheonan have stimulated an interesting debate over whether Lee Myung-bak is seeking regime change or changed behavior from the North Korean leadership. I argue over at YaleGlobal Online that Lee wants the Cheonan to be a turning point in the inter-Korean relationship, but in addition to support from the United States, South Korea needs China to prioritize stability over the status quo if Lee’s strategy is to be successful.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s meetings in Seoul this week underscore remarkably close cooperation between Washington and Seoul, a result by all accounts of the U.S. view that President Lee has handled the crisis thus far with a level of coolness and maturity that is deserving of unswerving support. The Cheonan issue also appears to have been good for Clinton’s visit to Tokyo, providing an issue on which Prime Minister Hatoyama could declare his unwavering cooperation that goes beyond Futenma.
As Victor Cha has laid out in Chosun Ilbo, it is striking how wrong-footed China’s response to the Cheonan case has been, especially in light of South Korea’s economic and political importance to China compared to North Korea (as illustrated below and in my book on China’s Rise and the Two Koreas).
China-ROK and China-DPRK Trade since 1982
Premier Wen Jiabao’s current visit to Seoul for meetings with Lee and Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama at “Plus Three” meetings in Jeju Island will provide the first opportunity for China to make adjustments, although the real challenges are yet to come at the UN Security Council, where China’s handling of both Iran and North Korea will draw international judgments regarding the quality of China’s leadership on the international stage.