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April 13, 2009: Mr. Scott Snyder

(Click to Enlarge) Mr. Scott Snyder describes China's changing relationship with North and South Korea.

China's Rise and the Two Koreas



(Washington D.C.) April 13– China’s growing economic interdependence with North and South Korea prompted many to expect a shift in political relationships in the region. However, despite its best efforts, China has not yet successfully leveraged its economic power into greater political or diplomatic influence on the Korean peninsula. In an East-West Center in Washington Asia Pacific Security Seminar, Mr. Scott Snyder of The Asia Foundation discussed his new book China's Rise and the Two Koreas: Politics, Economics, Security , in which he examines the changing relationships between China and the two Koreas as well as the implications of this change for U.S. influence in the region.

For many years, the country that loomed most importantly in South and North Korea’s respective foreign policies was the United States. South Korea looked to the United States for security and economic growth, while North Korea’s foreign policies seemed shaped to counter Washington’s influence. But as China’s economic and political power in Asia grew, both countries were required to increasingly consider China in their long-term strategic plans. China became a larger player in regional diplomatic efforts and, at the same time, began trying to use its economic interdependence with the two Koreas to gain greater political leverage with the two countries, with mixed results.

Mr. Snyder explained that South Korea’s rationale for normalizing relations with China in 1992 was political, but economic considerations soon began to dominate the relationship. By 2004, China had surpassed the United States as South Korea’s largest trading partner. Small South Korean businesses began moving into China, followed by larger conglomerates looking for inexpensive labor for manufacturing. This increase in economic interdependence was coupled with increased people-to-people ties and tourism between the two countries; in 2007, more than 4.5 million South Koreans visited China. Yet, Mr. Snyder explained, this economic and social growth has not translated into political trust between China and South Korea. As China grew to become an economic competitor with South Korea, South Koreans exhibited waning enthusiasm for increased economic ties with their giant neighbor. The past few years have seen drops in South Korean foreign direct investment in China as well as a leveling out of trade.

Further complicating this relationship was competition for influence in North Korea. For many years, South Koreans tried to keep up with the trade increases that China was making in North Korea, worrying about allowing China too much influence over the North. In addition, Mr. Snyder explained that Chinese claims to the former Koguryo Kingdom raised the nationalist hackles of the Korean people, and gave “common cause” to both the North and South. Mr. Snyder argued that increased concerns about Chinese economic competitiveness with South Korea coupled with political worries about China’s intentions drove South Korea to actively pursue the KORUS free trade agreement with the United States. It does not appear that China’s economic ties with South Korea are allowing it to make significant political gains with the country.

North Korea has even more reliance on the Chinese economy. China is one of North Korea’s most important economic partners and is often the first to offer aid to North Korea in times of famine. Further, North Korea depends heavily on China for its energy supplies. Mr. Snyder explained that China attempted to use these economic ties with North Korea to realize political goals after the 2006 nuclear test by North Korea, but these attempts have not been completely successful. He noted that though China did pressure North Korea to return to the Six Party Talks after the nuclear test and began to diminish high-level ties with the country to signal its displeasure with North Korea’s activities, this stance did not last long. After heated debate within China, Mr. Snyder explained that Chinese leaders determined that continuing a strong relationship with North Korea was in China’s best strategic interests. North Korea, further, has not responded well to China’s attempts to modify its behavior through economic pressures, increasingly according China no more diplomatic respect than any other country in East Asia.

Mr. Snyder concluded that China’s economic rise is not necessarily leading to an increase in political influence on the Korean peninsula, though it is clearly trying to achieve this goal. Instead, the United States and Japan continue to play very important roles in regional dynamics. He explained that Japan and the United States must convince China that a nuclear North Korea is a threat to China’s stability and encourage it to return to a stricter stance against the North. Additionally, Mr. Snyder noted that China and the United States might have greater influence on North Korea’s activities by coordinating their strategies to prevent North Korean nuclear proliferation, clearly signaling that a nuclear North will not be acceptable to its neighbors. As for South Korea, Mr. Snyder explained that if the United States or China wish to increase their political leverage with South Korea, they will have to approach the country not with the political pressure wielded by a great power, but with respect for the country and its role in the region.

Scott Snyder is director of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy and senior associate of Washington programs in the international relations program of The Asia Foundation. Mr. Snyder is also senior associate at Pacific Forum CSIS and was recently named adjunct senior fellow for Korea Studies by the Council on Foreign Relations. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mr. Snyder was an Asia specialist in the Research and Studies Program of the U.S. Institute of Peace, and served as acting director of Asia Society's Contemporary Affairs Program. He was the recipient of a Pantech Visiting Fellowship at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center during 2005-2006, and received an Abe Fellowship in 1998-99. Mr. Snyder has published numerous op-ed pieces and journal articles and is a frequent commentator on Asian security issues with a particular focus on the Korean peninsula. His latest book, China's Rise and the Two Koreas: Politics, Economics, Security , was published by Lynne Rienner in 2009. Other publications include Paved With Good Intentions: The NGO Experience in North Korea (2003), co-edited with L. Gordon Flake, and Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior (1999).

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