From Cornell International Affairs Review VOL. 7 NO. 1
Soft Power Deployment on the Korean Peninsula
The China Factor and ROK's soft power
Another major obstacle to South Korea's successful soft power projection is North Korea's geostrategic significance to China as a buffer zone. For China, North Korea presents a difficult strategic challenge: Beijing needs to fulfill its promises of being a "responsible regional player" and enforcing international sanctions on the DPRK while also maintaining stability on the Korean Peninsula. David Shambaugh argues that "preventing collapse [of North Korea] is Beijing's bottom line because collapse would have enormous tangible human and economic consequences for China, not to mention the intangible political impact of another failed Communist state".25 North Korea provides a necessary buffer from the U.S. military presence in South Korea. Moreover, the refugees that would cross the border into China should North Korea collapse would damage Chinese internal stability. China thus finds itself in a complicated position where its policymakers need to balance the Chinese image of a responsible world player against buttressing the Kim dynasty.
Despite China's clear irritation and concerns over its neighboring troublemaker, it only occasionally shows its frustration with the North Korean Regime and punishes it only when the DPRK provokes regional instability
The PRC is at a challenging crossroads when it comes to dealing with its unstable neighbor. For example, China refused to censure North Korea after it sank the South Korean warship Cheonan in 2010 leaving 46 sailors dead. In spite of overwhelming evidence that a North Korean torpedo caused the sinking, China stood by the DPRK amidst escalating international criticism.xxi However, in the wake of North Korea's threats to attack the ROK and United States in 2013, China distanced itself from its communist ally and joined the international community in passing economic sanctions on the DPRK.xxii To back up its rhetoric, the Bank of China closed down the North Korean credit line until it begins engaging the region as a "responsible stakeholder."xxiii China's seemingly contradictory policy moves demonstrate the difficult tightrope it must walk when it comes to North Korea.
The China-DPRK relationship underscores the point that even economic power is an insufficient persuasion tool because of the DPRK's commitment to political survival. For North Korea, China remains an indispensable ally and economic partner. In addition to Chinese aid, the DPRK's dependence on bilateral economic relations has grown steadily: SinoDPRK trade increased by an estimated 62.5 percent totaling $5.63 billion in 2011.26 This raises the question of whether China has gained greater leverage through North Korean economic dependence to promote one of its main goals: stability on the Korean Peninsula. Nevertheless, the DPRK has on many occasions contradicted China's interests and enraged decision-makers in Beijing. For example, North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006 escalated tensions in Asia and drew worldwide condemnation as China was preparing for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Although the test did not target China per se, it undermined China's image as an emerging leader and destabilized the region. Despite China's clear irritation and concerns over its neighboring troublemaker, it only occasionally shows its frustration with the North Korean regime and punishes it only when the DPRK provokes regional instability. For example, after North Korea's nuclear tests in 2006, China vehemently criticized its ally, using language it usually reserves for outright enemies. Rhetorical attacks were accompanied by economic sanctions targeting the imports of luxury goods.27 But Pyongyang, in turn, exploits China's strategic calculus and the DPRK's position in it. It knows that having China as a powerful patron further narrows any room for South Korean influence on North Korea through soft power.
Soth Korea's soft power has been unable to penetrate the North Korean shield
Therefore, South Korea's soft power is trumped because of the serious consequences that the DPRK's sudden collapse would create for China. Disintegration of the Kim dynasty would result in: (1) short-term destabilization of the region which could lead to a Chinese economic slowdown with potentially long-lasting effects;xxiv (2) loss of a buffer zone and the possibility of yet another democratic regime allied with the United States on the Chinese border;xxv and (3) an instantaneous stream of North Korean refugees to China which would also destabilize internal stability.xxvi Because of these repercussions, abandoning or destabilizing the Kim regime remains a nonstarter for policymakers in Beijing. China's influence remains constrained to attempting to get the DPRK back to the negotiating table. For example, after China cut off oil supplies to Pyongyang in response to the nuclear crisis in August 2003, DPRK's negotiators agreed to participate in three-party talks along with the Unites States. However, the talks did not pass the talking level, demonstrating also the limits of China's influence over North Korea
In summary, this section of the paper has argued that China's bottom line is saving the North Korean regime and its foreign policy options towards the DPRK remain limited. Maintaining stability on the peninsula, which in effect means perpetuation of the status quo, prevails as the modus operandi for Beijing. Consequently, China's geostrategic calculations dramatically shrink any room for the exercise of South Korean soft power. Combined with the limits the DPRK's isolationist nature places on the ROK's ability to transmit its soft power, current prospects for this strategy remain bleak. North Korea has successfully built a shield from South Korean soft power with its self-containment and Chinese support.
This paper has argued that South Korea's soft power is inadequate to counter the North Korean threat due to the DPRK's isolated regime and its geopolitical significance to China. As a result, South Korea's soft power has been unable to penetrate the North Korean shield during the transmission and reception phases. This situation is analogous to North Korea having nuclear weapons but without a reliable ballistic system to carry out a long-range attack. Ironically, North and South Korea have been struggling with the same transmission phase for their hard and soft power projection respectively. While South Korea has accumulated significant soft power resources, it continues to lack a functioning delivery system for its soft power to penetrate hostile terrain.
South Korea is faced with a ‘gunshot wound' type problem represented by the DPRK's nuclear threat, but Seoul continues to prescirbe ‘aspirin'
However, this failure should not be regarded as a failure of soft power per se; rather, it is the essence of the objective and the regional context that makes soft power an ineffective solution. Gianni Riotta, member of the Council on Foreign Relations, rightly points out "soft power is like aspirin, great for headaches, less effective against a gunshot wound". To extend Riotta's analogy, South Korea is faced with a "gunshot wound" type problem represented by the DPRK's nuclear threat, but Seoul continues to prescribe "aspirin." This ill-judged diagnosis by the ROK's policymakers –and just as importantly, their inability to deliver effective treatment— results in a neglect of priorities and context on behalf of the ROK's policymakers. Specifically, South Korea's top objective is to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and reduce hostilities, with future reunification also a goal for many. While nuclear non-proliferation is also a goal for China, maintaining the political status quo in North Korea is an indispensable part of China's foreign policy strategy. China's position and North Korea's isolation together result in the inapplicability of a soft power approach. A solution to the North Korean challenge has not been found yet, but acknowledging policies and operational tools that do not work would be a step in the right direction.
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