A major foreign policy achievement that has thus far been credited to Park Geun-hye during her first year in office has been the establishment of a stronger foundation for good relations with China. Park received a warm welcome from China’s president Xi Jinping during a state visit to Beijing last summer and Park and Xi have routinely made time for each other at multilateral summits, most recently on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit at The Hague. The hospitality afforded to Park stands in stark contrast both to the tensions that had characterized Sino-South Korean relations under Lee Myung-Bak and China’s treatment of Kim Jong-un, who remains in the dog house with Xi following nuclear and missile tests staged in the early stages of Xi’s term as President of China.Given the apparent downturn in inter-Korean relations and the impact that Lee Myung-bak’s inability to maintain steady inter-Korean dialogue had on Beijing’s perceptions of South Korea, it will be interesting to see whether Beijing revises its assessment of Park following her Dresden speech and whether an improved Sino-South Korean relationship will influence China’s policies toward Pyongyang in the event of new North Korean provocations such as a fourth nuclear test or another inter-Korean clash in the West Sea.
But what will Park and Xi be able to gain from a warming Sino-ROK relationship that thus far, symbolically at least, seems primarily to have developed at the expense of Kim Jong-un? And to what extent does Kim’s likely pique with Beijing carry costs, possibly including to stability in North Korea itself, that remain the sine qua non of China’s policy toward the peninsula? In our latest review of the past four months of developments in Sino-ROK relations for Comparative Connections, Seewon Byun and I explore the gradual deepening of Sino-South Korean relations and the extent to which Seoul’s closer relations with Beijing can be used to enhance South Korea’s leverage in inter-Korean relations, China’s shuttle diplomacy in an effort to reconstitute Six Party Talks, progress toward a China-South Korea FTA, and China’s efforts to join with South Korea in words and actions that are critical toward Japan.