ROK’s 3 Nos reaffirm the status quo

Speaking at a session at the South Korean (ROK) National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee on October 30, 2017, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha announced that the ROK will adhere to the “three nos” (or Three Nos): 1) No to more THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense) deployments; 2) No to the ROK joining a trilateral U.S.-Japan-ROK missile defense system; and 3) No to the ROK joining a trilateral U.S.-Japan-ROK defense pact.

It was part of a breakthrough “agreement” to normalize Chinese-ROK relations after a year-long spat over the U.S. deployment of a THAAD battery in South Korea that led to significant “informal” Chinese sanctions on ROK exports and investments in China and “informal” restrictions on Chinese tourism to ROK.

Critics argued as follows: China won, ROK lost, and ROK bowed to Chinese pressures; it’s a blow to the U.S.-ROK alliance as China replaces the U.S. as the ROK’s big-brother; it undermines ROK sovereignty; and the ROK has rejected Japan in favor of the familiar China due to lingering humiliation under Japanese colonialism.

Unfortunately, these claims are untrue. If China won and the ROK lost, the ROK would have removed the THAAD battery already deployed. If it were a blow to the U.S.-ROK alliance or if China is replacing the U.S. as ROK’s big brother, the U.S.-ROK bilateral treaties would be at risk and China should have more to show for it instead of mere verbal agreements. South Korean and Japanese relations haven’t necessarily been significantly adversely affected either.

As a few analysts have noted, the Three Nos instead represent a return to the status quo.

The Chinese may have realized that its “informal” sanctions were pushing the ROK away from them and destroying the goodwill built up over the decades. The Three Nos gives them a face-saving way to dismantle the “informal” sanctions and restore good relations, which is expedient if the present ROK administration itself cannot conveniently reverse the THAAD battery already deployed by its predecessor.

For the South Koreans, China represents a huge and growing market and remains a crucial channel to North Korea. Further, joining a U.S. led multilateral alliance system may force China and Russia to create a similar pact with North Korea, not only accelerating the regional arms race but also deteriorating longer-term efforts to achieve peace and unification on the peninsula.

In effect, the Three Nos repudiates the moves by two previous conservative presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Guen-hye toward a closer tripartite alliance with the U.S. and Japan. At the same time, it revives the balancer approach in South Korean foreign policy of the earlier two liberal presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.

In 2014, for example, former President Park signed the Trilateral Information Sharing Arrangement with the U.S. and Japan. In 2016, she implemented the General Security of Military Information Agreement signed by her predecessor President Lee Myung-bak in 2012. In an unpopular move, she also hastily settled the Comfort Women issue with Japan and began holding joint military exercises. The Three Nos restores the ROK’s balancer diplomacy by saying they will cooperate in trilateral projects with Japan and the U.S. only to counter the North Korean missile program and not join a broader multilateral defense pact.

Some say that the ROK is giving away sovereignty, but the Three Nos is a significant assertion of ROK sovereignty. While it does nothing to the existing bilateral U.S.-ROK alliance, it repudiates the U.S. attempt to create a potentially binding multilateral defense pact which could further erode ROK sovereignty. THAAD deployment and a regionally integrated missile defense system fit into that larger U.S. strategy.

Hence, we probably haven’t heard the last of the Three Nos: It is both complex and vague; it assures China and strengthens the ROK; and it thwarts U.S. moves to build a NATO-like trilateral pact or an Indo-Pacific pan-Asian one.

As significant as it is, however, the Three Nos is not codified in any formal treaty between China and the ROK; it’s only a verbal agreement, indicating it may only be a temporary marriage of convenience. Thus President Moon Jae-in must further clarify, develop, and solidify what the Three Nos mean if he is going to improve its long-term prospects and further refine his foreign policy.

This article was first published on November 30, 2017 in The Korea Times.

Photo Credit: Map by Arirang News. THAAD launch photo by U.S. Missile Defense Agency.