2018 was an important year for the Korean Peninsula, when relations between the two Koreas changed from confrontation to dialogue. It is expected that peace, cooperation and reconciliation will be the future of the Peninsula.
With President Donald Trump taking office, there have been several significant changes in Sino-US relations brought about by trade friction and strategic differences. The competition over economy and security between the two countries will outweigh cooperation. Such shifts in Sino-US ties will influence the future of the Korean Peninsula.
That Sino-US relations have become strained could be beneficial to Pyongyang.
First, current US-China relations have relieved the maximum pressure on North Korea exerted by the US. Since North Korea conducted the first nuclear test in 2006, UN Security Council sanctions have been increasingly tough. Resolution 2397 in 2017 especially tightened the sanctions, affecting normal economic ties between Beijing and Pyongyang. Although the UN has not lifted sanctions, the situation improved dramatically, especially in 2018. At the beginning of last year, the US slapped more sanctions on North Korea and Chinese companies that have business connections with Pyongyang, which was strongly opposed by China. Since then, there have been no additional sanctions on North Korea.
Second, it has eased the pressure of denuclearization on North Korea. The US believes North Korea must undertake complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearization. China approved of the reciprocal approach, which expanded Pyongyang’s space for denuclearization and time for ending the confrontation with the US and the final signing of peace treaty. The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is a gradual process, and cannot be completed in a day.
Furthermore, deeper Sino-North Korean ties benefit the economic development of Pyongyang as Beijing fully supports North Korean economic development and improvement of the lives of its citizens.
Current Sino-US relations also produced a marked impact on South Korea’s economy. According to Taimur Baig, chief economist of Singapore’s DBS Bank, if both China and the US impose 15 percent to 25 percent tariffs on all products traded between the two countries, it is expected that South Korea’s GDP growth rate would drop by 0.4 percent from its estimated 2.9 percent growth in 2017. South Korea is an export-driven economy and the export of electronics, automobiles and steel would directly suffer due to the US-China trade friction, adding uncertainty to South Korea’s economy.
South Korea’s dilemma over Sino-US security issues would become more pronounced. The US and South Korea are military allies and South Korea has been relying on the US for security. THAAD is an example. It caused tensions between China and South Korea that lasted for more than a year. The row ended with South Korea’s promises: no additional THAAD deployment, no joining the America-led theater missile defense system in Northeast Asia and no consideration for any kind of military alliance involving US and Japan.
Although the general trend on the Korean Peninsula is that of peaceful cooperation, the US’ strategy of taking advantage of its alliance with South Korea to ensure its military presence around the Korean Peninsula, deter North Korea and contain China would not change. Some claim the purpose of the US exiting from Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was not to target Russia, but China. Once the US intends to deploy intermediate-range missiles by using South Korea as the base, Seoul would face new challenges.
In recent years, especially after Trump took office, there have been some changes in Sino-US relations, but China’s overall strategy toward the Korean Peninsula is constant. Generally, it is to maintain peace and stability, oppose wars and chaos, support denuclearization and cooperation between both Koreas and finally realize unification.