A follow-up to the previous post (Prospects for a New Trading Bloc), I feel it is necessary to provide further analysis on the possible motives behind South Korea's acceptance of the joint declaration which underscored the possibility of forming a trilateral free trade agreement (FTA). This new position is different from the more skeptical position that South Korea took in December last year.
Looking at the timing of Seoul's negotiations with its neighbors, economic benefits from closer regional economic integration appear to be only one of the many objectives that President Lee Myungbak had under consideration. Although the finalization of the agreement between Seoul and Tokyo was recently put on hold, a bilateral agreement on sharing military intelligence and logistics was in its final stage before the trilateral negotiations began. Immediately following the summit in Beijing, South Korea approached China about establishing a similar arrangement. The timing of these meetings should be read as an expression of Seoul's foreign policy objectives.
It is likely that President Lee is attempting to achieve a definitive foreign policy victory before his term ends. The biggest challenge to Lee was not just the two North Korean attacks in 2010, but also the meek response he received from the regional powers when he sought to reprimand Pyongyang. In particular, China's lukewarm response has been blamed for encouraging North Korea to continue provocative actions along the Northern Limitation Line. Preventing future attacks will require establishing a diplomatic environment in the region that would deter North Korea from behaving belligerently - with China enthusiastic about the trilateral FTA, Seoul may be hoping to use it as leverage to more closely align Beijing to South Korea's interests.
Despite the efforts, China is unlikely to change its position on North Korea in the near future, especially when the Chinese Communist Party is preparing for its power transition later this year. Furthermore, China needs North Korea to resource the necessary raw materials for the development of the northeastern provinces.
This should also provide a stark reminder to the United States that some of South Korea's needs can only be satisfied by Chinese cooperation. Events this April proved that the United States can only do so much to convince the North Koreans not to do something. With this in mind, there is little reason to brashly pursue policy that will bring the two countries even closer together.
Please read my article on Asia Times Online