June 25, 2009: Dr. Hyon Joo Yoo and Dr. Phillip Saunders

(Click to Enlarge) Dr. Hyon Joo Yoo and Dr. Phillip Saunders discuss South Korean perceptions of China.

South Korea's Perceptions of China: Implications for the U.S.-ROK Alliance

(Washington D.C.) June 25–In the near term, rather than viewing China as a threat, South Korea regards its giant neighbor as an ally in dealing with North Korea, a country that the ROK perceives as its greatest regional concern. But in the longer term, when the North Korean threat disappears, China likely will be viewed by ROK as less useful to its interests and perhaps even as a threat. In an East-West Center in Washington Asia Pacific Security Seminar, Dr. Hyon Joo Yoo, visiting fellow at the East-West Center in Washington, along with discussant Dr. Phillip Saunders, senior research fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies, discussed South Korean perceptions of China and the implications of the Sino-ROK relationship for the alliance between the United States and South Korea.


Dr. Yoo explained that South Korea regards China as being helpful in dealing with North Korea’s belligerence and therefore sees China as an asset rather than a threat. From the South Korean view, China has as much interest as South Korea in maintaining peace on the Korean peninsula and, further, has more influence over North Korea than any other country. Dr. Yoo argued that, in fact, South Korea grows closer to China in times of great threat from North Korea while it engages in less friendly relations with China (e.g., by taking a tough line in trade or diplomatic talks) in times when the North Korean threat is low. 


This relationship between China and South Korea affects South Korea’s interactions with its alliance partner, the United States. Dr. Yoo explained that while the majority of South Koreans see the value of the U.S.-ROK alliance and regard the United States as the country that is most helpful to South Korea, the ROK often avoids cooperating with the United States on issues that might offend China. For example, Dr. Yoo noted that South Korea has not been an enthusiastic supporter of the ballistic missile defense program that the United States is planning for Asia. Though the system is designed to protect from a number of possible threats, most particularly North Korea, China has occasionally complained that the system is aimed at China. Dr. Yoo argued that, as a result, South Korea is reluctant to offend China by actively supporting the program.


However, Dr. Yoo explained that South Korea continues to be an active supporter of most other U.S. policies, such as the war on terror, and is likely to remain a close partner of the United States. Though the alliance is based in part on the need to contain the North Korean threat, Dr. Yoo does not agree with commentators who argue that the U.S.-ROK alliance will disintegrate and that South Korea will grow closer to China once the North Korean threat disappears. On the contrary, Dr. Yoo argues that the end of a North Korean threat will not only diminish the utility that South Korea sees in its relationship with China, but will also cause South Korea to recognize the threat that China might pose to it in the future. In other words, when the primary threat of North Korea disappears, the latent, potential threat of China will become more real to South Koreans. In this situation, Dr. Yoo believes that South Korea is likely to become an even stronger partner of the United States, with which it shares important core values and a vision for a peaceful Asia Pacific region as well as strong commercial and economic ties.


Hyon Joo Yoo is a visiting fellow at the East-West Center in Washington and will be an assistant professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, beginning in the fall of 2009. Previously, she was a research fellow at the Korea Development Institute in Seoul and a lecturer in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. Dr. Yoo has received several grants and fellowships from institutions including The Institute for Humane Studies, The Korea Foundation, and Georgetown University. Dr. Yoo has an M.I.R. from Songang University in Seoul and a Ph.D. in international relations from Georgetown University.


Phillip C. Saunders has been a senior research fellow at the National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies since January 2004. He previously worked at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, where he served as director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program from 1999-2003 and taught courses on Chinese politics, Chinese foreign policy, and East Asian security. Dr. Saunders has conducted research and consulted on East Asian security issues for Princeton University and the Council on Foreign Relations and previously worked on Asia policy issues as an officer in the United States Air Force. Dr. Saunders has published numerous articles on China and Asian security including the monograph China’s Global Activism: Strategy, Drivers, and Tools , and the article “Bridge over Troubled Water? Envisioning a China-Taiwan Peace Agreement” in International Security .