Caught in the Middle: South Korea and the South China Sea Arbitration Decision

in Asian Yearbook of International Law

i Introduction

The July 2016 decision handed down by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (pca) at The Hague provided a ruling that went far beyond what many expected concerning the scope of the case. The United States celebrated the ruling receiving a far more decisive verdict than most had expected. Though the Philippines filed the suit, its response has been surprising and confusing. President Rodrigo Duterte, who assumed power in June 2016, initially indicated he would “strongly affirm and respect” the decision.2 However, in October, Duterte visited China and since has appeared to back away, willing to “set aside the arbitration ruling.”3

Others have weighed in with a variety of positions ranging from positive support to simply acknowledging the decision to opposing the result.4 Of course, China was bitterly disappointed with the outcome and vowed to ignore the pca judgment. Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared the ruling “completely a political farce staged under legal pretext,”5 and President Xi Jinping vowed that “China will not accept nor recognize the decision, while the country’s territorial sovereignty and maritime interests in the South China Sea will not be affected under any circumstance.”6

Prior to the pca decision, South Korea (Republic of Korea – rok) had only recently and reluctantly taken a public position where it called for respect of international norms, freedom of navigation, and the peaceful resolution of disputes, in large part, resulting from urging by the Obama administration. The decision was a stark reminder for South Korea of the difficult position it can find itself in when an issue puts it between the policies of Beijing and Washington. While the South Korean economy and its future prosperity is closely tied to China, and China remains a key player for dealing with North Korea, the United States has long been a close ally and central to maintaining rok security. In addition, the pca decision came soon after South Korea’s announcement to allow the United States to deploy a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (thaad) battery to the peninsula, another decision that hurt rok relations with Beijing.

The South China Sea (scs) dispute and the pca decision may not have a direct impact on South Korean interests but it does raise the possibility South Korea will increasingly be called upon to support the position of one side or the other with the chance of economic retaliation and Chinese intransigence in dealing with North Korea, or continued pressure from Washington. In addition, though South Korea did not have a direct stake in the pca ruling, it does have an interest in upholding international law, regional peace and stability, and the free flow of commerce. There is also a possibility of follow-on ramifications that could affect South Korea’s maritime disputes with China (Ieodo, illegal fishing, eez delimitation), Japan (Dokdo/Takeshima), and North Korea (Northern Limit Line – nll). Though it is not yet clear if the pca ruling will affect these disputes, rok authorities are likely giving this careful consideration in case the pca decision stirs the waters in any of these issues.

This article will examine the rok stance on the South China Sea dispute along with the uncomfortable position it finds itself in between two countries important to rok interests. In addition, it will assess the possible impact of the pca decision on South Korea’s maritime disputes and interests. For South Korea, the scs dispute and the pca ruling is a classic case of an issue that involves several competing interests with varying stakes. The South Korean government has worked to navigate a complex interest set and done a relatively good job of balancing the competing interests it has at stake. However, depending on how the dispute evolves, and more importantly, the future of Sino-u.s. relations, South Korea may have some increasingly difficult choices to make concerning international law, maritime security and its relations with China and the United States.

ii South Korea’s Interests in the South China Sea Dispute

The dispute in the scs is a classic case of an issue that involves a host of cross-cutting interests with different stakes and priorities. One of the most direct connections South Korea has is its economic interests and commercial ties to the region.7 The rok economy is heavily dependent on international trade including markets for its exports and the importation of raw materials, especially energy imports on which South Korea is almost totally dependent. According to the World Bank, in 2015, rok total trade as a percent of gdp was 85 percent.8 South Korea is ranked as the world’s 7th largest trading State. A large share of rok energy imports come from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which must pass through the South China Sea. South Korea also imports various ores and metals from China and Australia to feed its industrial sectors.9

South Korea has important and growing economic ties with the countries of Southeast Asia. In 2015, rok trade with Vietnam reached $37.6 billion followed by Singapore ($22.95 billion), Indonesia ($16.72 billion), Malaysia ($16.35 billion), and the Philippines ($11.57 billion).10rok companies also have expanding investments in the region to take advantage of lower labor costs and to expand its market presence in a region projected to have significant economic growth in the years ahead.11 Southeast Asia is also an important destination for rok foreign aid with six of its top fifteen recipients in the region including Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Vietnam.12 In 2006, the rok government concluded a free trade agreement with asean and has designated the organization a strategic partner. South Korea hosts the asean-Korea Centre founded in 2009 with the intention to “strengthen mutual cooperation and deepen friendship among the asean Member States and Korea through increasing trade volume, accelerating investment flow, invigorating tourism and enriching cultural and people-to-people exchange.”13

South Korea has important interests in play in the South China Sea and the stakes are high. Should instability and conflict disrupt or block trade routes through the South China Sea, the rok economy would be affected in numerous, negative ways. The free flow of commerce is central to South Korea’s economy and maintaining stability to facilitate these commercial flows is crucial. Moreover, when disputes arise within the region, it is equally important for South Korea’s interests that they be settled peacefully while upholding the rule of law along with international norms and commitments.

iii rok Maritime Disputes

While South Korea is not a direct participant in the scs dispute, it does have its own maritime disputes with China, Japan, and North Korea that could be affected by the ruling. All of the disputes are different though there are some common issues present such as fishing rights. We now turn to a brief review of each set of disputes.


First, Seoul and Beijing have overlapping claims for their respective Exclusive Economic Zones (eez) in the Yellow or West Sea. The Yellow Sea is approximately 378 nautical miles (nm) at its widest point so that their 200 nm eezs have considerable overlap. When States have overlapping eez claims, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (unclos) calls on States to arrive at a negotiated settlement, and South Korea and China have held numerous meetings to try to resolve their competing claims but have been unable to reach agreement. South Korea has called for the issue to be settled through the “median line” principle which draws the line equidistant from rok and Chinese baselines while China has insisted the line be drawn proportionally taking into account the extent of its coastline and population.14

A second and related issue is that of illegal fishing by Chinese boats in South Korean waters.15 As the Chinese population has grown along with the demand for food, Chinese fishing fleets have overfished waters adjacent to the mainland requiring boats to venture farther out to sea to maintain the size of their catches. This problem has been compounded by pollution in Chinese coastal waters that has also depleted fishing stocks pushing Chinese boats to fish elsewhere. Seoul and Beijing have concluded agreements to manage the fishing problem but enforcement concerns continue, particularly regarding Chinese vessels in rok waters. Violence has been a regular occurrence between the rok Coast Guard and Chinese fishing boats. In December 2010, two Chinese fishermen died from a collision with a rok Coast Guard vessel and in December 2011, a crewmember on a rok Coast Guard cutter was killed and another wounded when a Chinese ship captain stabbed him with a piece of glass during a boarding operation. Though Chinese enforcement has improved, rok authorities deem it insufficient as illegal fishing continues to be a serious problem. In 2015, South Korea seized over 600 Chinese ships for illegal fishing, and rok naval vessels have now joined the maritime police and coast guard to patrol for Chinese fishing boats.16

Finally, South Korea and China have a dispute over a reef in the East China Sea that Koreans call Ieodo and the Chinese call Suyan Rock. Both parties agree that this is not a territorial dispute as defined by unclos since the reef remains submerged up to four to five meters at low tide. The reef’s location is approximately 80 nm from the island of Marado, the closest rok territory and 155 nm from the nearest Chinese island of Tongdao. In 1952, President Syngman Rhee drew his maritime “Peace Line” that included Ieodo under rok administrative control and during the next several decades, little was made of the issue. In 2003, South Korea built the Ieodo Ocean Research Station on the reef to collect data on ocean currents, fishing, weather, and climate change. South Korea has argued that it was permissible to build the research facility under Articles 60 and 80 of unclos that allow for the construction of installations, artificial islands, and structures on the continental shelf or within the eez.17

Chinese authorities were very displeased with the Ieodo facility and filed regular protests expressing their opposition. Beijing has also periodically challenged South Korea’s claim to the region. In July 2011, China sent three patrol ships to the reef to stop a rok salvage operation of a commercial vessel, and in December 2011, sent a monitoring ship to the area to support its jurisdictional claim.18 Sparks flew again in March 2012 when Liu Xiqui, the head of China’s State Oceanic Administration, maintained Suyan Rock was in China’s “jurisdictional waters,” requiring it to increase patrols and law enforcement of the area.19 Further exacerbating the issue, in November 2013, China declared an air defense identification zone (adiz) in the East China Sea that included Ieodo.20 The following month, South Korea responded by expanding its adiz southward to include the reef after notifying Japan, China, and the United States.21

In December 2015, Chinese officials again raised the issue that the reef fell within China’s eez and hence, Suyan Rock was under Chinese jurisdiction. South Korea has been adamant the reef falls under its administration and settling the eez claims would resolve this dispute as well. One analyst noted, “Until now, Seoul has avoided taking sides in territorial disputes involving China and other countries in the region. Now that it faces its own territorial tug of war with China [over Ieodo], South Korea may find it difficult to remain neutral in such disputes in order to counteract China’s growing assertiveness in claiming territories in the region.”22


The maritime dispute with Japan concerns a cluster of islets in the East Sea known as Dokdo to Koreans and Takeshima to Japanese. Dokdo consists of two small islands and several surrounding reefs that are located approximately halfway between Korea and Japan. The islands are important largely for fishing and the possibility of oil and gas deposits. South Korea occupied the islands in 1954 and gradually established a presence including a lighthouse, wharf, and facilities for approximately 50 to 60 government and Coast Guard personnel. Despite rok possession of the islands, sovereignty remains a bone of contention between South Korea and Japan with arguments drawing on evidence from centuries ago.23 The dispute is also grounded in the period of Japanese occupation from 1910–1945 and the five years prior when Korea was a protectorate. In February 1905, Japan incorporated the islands maintaining they were unoccupied and terra nullius, belong to no one. Japan argues its acquisition occurred before the November 1905 protectorate and 1910 annexation treaties so that when these were nullified after World War ii, Tokyo retained possession.

South Korea sees these events differently contending that Korean sovereignty had been established over the islands prior to 1905 and cite Japanese documents and maps from the late 1800s and 1950s that demonstrate Korean ownership.24 Consequently, the islands were not terra nullius and were returned to South Korea after World War ii. At the end of the war, Japanese and South Korean authorities lobbied u.s. occupation officials hard for possession of the islands and initially, Washington sided with Japan where Assistant Secretary of State Dean Rusk noted “the island does not appear ever before to have been claimed by Korea.”25 The u.s. position may have had more to do with the success of Japan’s lobbying efforts than the strength of the evidence. It was not long after, however, that the u.s. position evolved to its current policy of not taking a position on sovereignty and accepting whatever diplomatic settlement could be reached between Seoul and Tokyo.26

The dispute remains a flashpoint in rok-Japan relations and periodically flares up as a bone of contention. Both countries regularly assert their claim through a variety of routes including government documents, teaching materials, visits, and expressions by their respective publics regarding the sovereignty claims. South Korea maintains there is no dispute and thus, nothing to settle, but Japan has threatened on several occasions to take the matter to the International Court of Justice, the most recent in 2012. South Korea has refused to participate in any arbitration process, but the pca ruling could have an impact on the dispute.

North Korea

Finally, the North–south maritime dispute concerns the nll, a maritime demarcation line believed to have been promulgated on August 30, 1953 shortly after the Korean War.27 During the armistice talks, negotiators were unable to reach agreement on a maritime border in the West Sea and were unwilling to delay the armistice over this issue. Soon after, it became clear to United Nations Command (unc) authorities that a maritime boundary was needed. The armistice had designated five islands known today as the Northwest Islands (nwi) in the West Sea as under unc control and the line was drawn approximately mid-channel between the North Korean shore and these islands. The line was largely intended to keep rok fishing vessels from straying north, and though North Korea was never notified of the line, it was not long before it deciphered the location of the nll.

In December 1973, North Korea lodged its first formal protest of the nll maintaining the five nwi were in its territorial waters and access to islands would require Pyongyang’s permission. At the time, u.s. officials understood that the nll rested on shaky legal ground. A 1974 u.s. State Department cable noted “reservations” regarding South Korea’s claim to the nll and that “we would be in an extremely vulnerable position of charging [North Korea] with penetrations beyond a line they have never accepted or acknowledged.”28 In 1999 following the first large scale naval clash along the nll, North Korea proclaimed the line null and void while drawing their own version of a maritime boundary that was approximately the median line between the North and South Korean coasts but allowing two corridors of two nm each to access the nwi. The use of a median line to settle overlapping claims of adjacent coastal States is outlined in Article 15 of unclos.29

South Korea has been adamant in maintaining the current nll as the de facto maritime boundary. Given the hostile relations, the line is essential for rok security, especially for the nwi which would be near impossible to defend without the current nll. Moreover, many rok analysts maintain that at various times, North Korea has indicated acceptance of the line. As demonstrated in 2007 when President Roh Moo-hyun sought to broach the issue with the North during his summit meeting with Kim Jong-il, any rok leader who attempted to shift the line south would face stiff opposition at home. Without a significant improvement in the overall security situation, South Korea will not accept any adjustment to the line.

iv Caught in the Middle

Another element of the dispute for South Korea is the indirect aspect of being caught between two important players in the scs dispute – China and the United States. Both countries are important to South Korea’s future but for different reasons. Moreover, both countries would be delighted to have South Korea provide vocal support for their position in the dispute. Debate continues in South Korea over the interests, stakes, and direction of rok policy as it navigates between these two powers. Much will depend on the future of Sino-u.s. relations that might force South Korea’s hand and make any type of hedging strategy increasingly difficult.

rok-China Relations

Korea’s ties to China are extensive and rooted in centuries of history as neighbors through geographic proximity, trade, and cultural exchange along with years of the Kingdom of Korea existing under the suzerainty of the Chinese Empire. After the division of Korea in 1945 and the Korean War, South Korea and China were squarely on opposite sides of the Cold War as Beijing first rescued North Korea early in the Korean War and then supported the chief threat to South Korean security with military aid and subsidized trade.30 China has been a central player in Korean affairs throughout history and its role will always be important in determining the future of the peninsula.

For South Korea, there are two chief elements in its relations with China. First, economic ties with China are crucial for the continued prosperity of the rok economy. China is South Korea’s top trading partner with total trade in 2015 over $227 billion and a trade surplus of close to $47 billion. South Korea’s trade with China is more than the combined total of its next two trade partners, the United States ($113.85 billion) and Japan ($71.43 billion).31 Trade with China represents approximately 25 percent of total rok trade.32 South Korea and China also have extensive economic ties through foreign direct investment (fdi).

On 1 June 2015, Seoul and Beijing signed a free trade agreement (fta) that went into effect on 20 December 2015. Negotiations began in 2012 and it took twelve rounds of talks to conclude the deal. The agreement will remove tariffs on over 90 percent of their trade within 20 years and initial estimates indicate that trade volume will likely increase by more than 20 percent.33 However one study noted that the agreement was disappointing in its efforts to liberalize trade and “both sides incorporated extensive exceptions to basic tariff reforms and deferred important market access negotiations on services and investment for several years.”34 Seoul has also been part of the early rounds of negotiations to conclude the Chinese-sponsored Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and has joined China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, one of several u.s. allies to do so despite Washington’s opposition.

South Korea’s ties to the Chinese economy are extensive and a significant opportunity for growth. However, they are also a vulnerability providing China leverage with which to influence South Korean policy. For example, in the wake of the decision to deploy the thaad missile defense battery, China has retaliated against rok companies that do business in and with China, imposed restrictions on travel and tourism to South Korea, and cancelled K-Pop concerts.35 Thus, the economic stakes are high for South Korea in its relationship with China.

Second, South Korea recognizes that Chinese assistance is essential for dealing with the problem of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. China is the North’s main trading partner and economic life line as well as political protector. Beijing is the only country that appears to have any power and influence over Pyongyang, and without Chinese support, managing the North Korea problem becomes infinitely more difficult. As a result, President Park sought to build a close relationship with China and President Xi Jinping. The two leaders met on numerous occasions after Park took office in February 2013, either through bilateral summits or on the sidelines of other multilateral meetings such as asean or the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. In September 2015, Park travelled to Beijing for the parade through Tiananmen Square that commemorated the end of World War ii and the victory over Japan. Park’s attendance, her third trip to China, was controversial and she took a considerable risk attending since few other democratic leaders chose to do so. During the trip, Park met with Xi where the two cautioned North Korea to refrain from taking any actions that might raise regional tensions. Regarding denuclearization, they “shared the view that meaningful six-way talks should be quickly resumed,” citing the success of the Iran nuclear deal.36 A Chinese press report noted that both leaders expressed a willingness to cooperate in achieving denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula along with communicating and coordinating on regional and international affairs.37

Despite Park’s efforts, when North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear weapon test in January 2016 and followed up in February with another satellite launch, China’s response was far less than she had hoped. All of the ground work and risk Park had taken in building up a close relationship with Xi seemed to be for naught given the tepid Chinese response. Subsequently, the rok government reversed its position on the possibility of deploying the thaad system to South Korea. rok leaders had been hesitant based on China’s strong opposition to u.s. missile defense efforts in the region. While the government held off, China’s objections struck some in South Korea as bullying over an issue that was important to rok security. After China’s lukewarm response to the nuclear test and satellite launch, thaad was back on the table, despite Chinese objections. As talks proceeded, Qiu Guohong, the Chinese ambassador to South Korea warned that Sino-rok relations could be “destroyed in an instant” if the thaad system were deployed to Korea.38 But a Park Administration spokesman fired back: “This is a matter we will decide upon according to our own security and national interests. The Chinese had better recognize this point.”39 A senior official at the rok Foreign Ministry who wanted anonymity chimed in further that China should “look into the root of the problem [North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs] if it really wants to raise an issue with it.”40

On July 8, 2016, the rok Defense Ministry announced an agreement with Washington to deploy the system and Chinese anger was quick to follow. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi remarked, “The recent move by the South Korean side has harmed the foundation of mutual trust between the two countries. thaad is most certainly not a simple technical issue, but an out-and-out strategic one.”41

The decision has also been contentious in South Korea with vocal opposition in some quarters over the location of the thaad battery, the possible negative effects on rok-Sino relations, and the potential health effects of the radar system. However, the rok government remained committed to its decision. After announcing the thaad decision, Park argued: “Growing nuclear and missile threats are a very critical issue where the future of the Republic of Korea and the lives of our people are at stake. As president, I have the obligation to protect our people and nation.” Moreover, Park declared “thaad will not target any country other than North Korea, and will not encroach upon the security interests of any third country. (We) have no reason to do so.”42 Chinese objections were also undercut by North Korea’s fifth nuclear detonation in September and continued ballistic missile tests.

During the 2016 G-20 meeting in China, Park and Xi held a bilateral session where Xi reiterated China’s opposition to the deployment but also appeared to craft a more conciliatory tone by noting “China and South Korea should make efforts to get their bilateral ties back on track toward stable development” and that “close neighbors with common interests … should hold dear the foundation of their political cooperation and get over difficulties and challenges.”43 Some rok analysts speculated that China would adopt a two-track approach to thaad that opposed its deployment but would work to grow political and economic ties with South Korea. rok Finance Minister Yoo Il-ho argued: “There will be no large-scale retaliation from China. We speculate that [the Chinese government] will separate economics with politics. Although we are concerned, it is unlikely that economic relations between South Korea and China will see a sudden decline. We will try to convince China that this is a political issue and not an economic one.”44 Given China’s economic retaliation, these assessments appear to have been overly optimistic.

Though rok leaders recognize the crucial role China plays in dealing with North Korea, this has been tempered by the realization that there are limits to what Beijing will do to control the North, no matter how close rok-Sino relations become. Yet, while South Korea’s hopes that China was willing to exert more pressure on North Korea to moderate its behavior have been dampened, economics remains a central factor in South Korea maintaining a hedging strategy regarding its relations with China.45

rok-u.s. Relations

Since the end of World War ii, South Korea’s security has been closely linked to ties with the United States. When the Korean War ended, Washington and Seoul concluded a formal alliance that included a mutual security treaty, u.s. ground forces stationed close to the demilitarized zone acting as a trip wire to ensure a u.s. response should North Korea invade, over $5.7 billion in economic and military aid, and the inclusion of South Korea under the u.s. nuclear umbrella along with the deployment of u.s. tactical nuclear weapons to the peninsula.46 The rok-u.s. alliance has grown from its initial founding as a patron-client relationship where Washington provided security for a poor, war-torn country to one that now is more of a partnership. In 2009, Presidents Barack Obama and Lee Myung-bak concluded a joint vision statement that conceived of a relationship where “we will build a comprehensive strategic alliance of bilateral, regional and global scope, based on common values and mutual trust” to address a variety of problems and common interests beyond only regional concerns.47 A crucial element of the changing relationship has been South Korea’s economic growth and political development that has led to a broader set of interests and tools to pursue these goals either independently or as part of the alliance.48 Though support for the alliance in South Korea has ebbed and flowed over the years and there have been periods of serious anti-Americanism,49 overall support for the alliance and its role in preserving rok security remains strong. In surveys done by the Asan Institute, it found that from 2010 to 2014, public support for the alliance and a belief that the alliance is a necessity for rok security has been over 85 percent.50

Over the years, alliance planning and strategy have evolved into a close and effective deterrence posture. For example, in 1978, South Korea and the United States formed the Combined Forces Command (cfc). The new arrangement created a highly integrated command structure that reinforced the u.s. defense commitment while improving the alliance’s ability to fight should deterrence fail.

The past decade, Washington and Seoul have taken other measures to bolster the alliance and deterrence in the face of a growing North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile capability. In October 2013, the alliance announced a new “Tailored Deterrence Strategy” (tds) to counteract North Korea’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapon capabilities.51 Though the details are classified, the tds contains plans for further integration of us and rok forces for a joint response to dprk threats, including the possibility of preemptive strikes should a North Korean attack appear imminent. Alliance planning has also included a new operations plan – oplan 5015 that, according to press reports, contains contingency plans for conducting rapid counterstrikes on North Korean leadership and military targets after an attack.52

To rehearse these plans as well as to send a message of u.s. determination to defend South Korea, each year the alliance conducts a series of joint exercises, Ulchi Freedom Guardian (ufg) in the fall, and Key Resolve (kr) and Foal Eagle (fe) in the spring. ufg and kr are computer-simulated, command post exercises that work on intelligence, logistics, and operations challenges to enhance readiness by working through a series of possible North Korea scenarios. Both of these exercises last approximately two weeks. fe takes place in spring and is a large, combined forces field training exercise to flow u.s. forces to the peninsula and conduct joint combat operations to defend South Korea. In addition to ground combat units, fe also includes naval and air components, special forces, and at times, high profile displays of u.s. strategic assets such as a B-52 or ballistic missile submarine. The 2016 exercise simulated a new pre-emptive strike plan labelled “4D” (detect, disrupt, destroy, and defend) that rehearsed operations to destroy and secure dprk chemical and nuclear weapon assets during a conflict so that these stockpiles remain secure and do not fall into the hands of other States or terrorist organizations.53

Deterrence at the strategic level has been relatively stable for over six decades with the likelihood of North Korea conducting another invasion of the South very low. Many analysts have instead been raising concerns for increases in North Korea’s lower level provocations. Borrowing the Cold War concept of a stability-instability paradox, Pyongyang might undertake more provocative behavior as it did in 2010 with the sinking of the Cheonan and shelling Yeonpyeong Island knowing it had a nuclear capability as a shield. Though North Korea has not displayed the type of behavior predicted by the paradox, to counter any potential problems in this area, Seoul and Washington agreed to a Combined Counter-Provocation Plan (ccp). Details are classified but reports of the plan point to South Korea being in the lead for responding to dprk provocations but can request assistance from Washington. The ccp is intended to enhance joint planning and consultation to improve readiness while providing a determined and rapid response to North Korean actions.54

These examples, among many others, of alliance planning and preparation demonstrate the extensive integration of the alliance and the determined commitment of the United States to defend South Korea if attacked. There is little doubt the United States and the alliance plays a crucial role in rok security. While the focus of the alliance has been deterrence and defense against North Korea, there is also some apprehension and wariness tied to China’s rise and the possibility that China will seek to dominate the region in ways that hurt rok interests. The United States and the alliance remain essential for South Korea’s security, not only for the defense of South Korea against another dprk invasion but also to support South Korea in the face of lower level provocations perpetrated by the North.55

rok-u.s. relations also have an important economic component though not as large as economic ties with China. In 2015, South Korea and the United States had bilateral trade worth $113.85 billion.56 The United States is South Korea’s 2nd largest trading partner while South Korea is the 8th largest for the United States. In 2007, South Korea and the United States signed a free trade agreement (korus fta) and after considerable political wrangling, both legislatures finally passed the deal in 2011, entering into force the following year. The korus fta ends approximately 95 percent of tariffs during the first five years with the remaining duties eliminated over the next ten years. The agreement has opened markets in automobiles, tires, and motion pictures, as well as service sectors in health, education, and finance. The deal is the largest fta for the United States since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement and is South Korea’s second largest fta surpassed only by the one with the European Union.57

v South Korea’s Position on the South China Sea

Though South Korea is not a direct participant in the scs dispute and the pca ruling, it does have some important interests in the issue with relatively high stakes. Freedom of navigation, regional peace and stability, and the peaceful settling of disputes are very important for rok economic and strategic interests. These issues, as well as others raised here, also tie South Korea to the future of Sino-u.s. relations. Should ties between Beijing and Washington continue to deteriorate, South Korea could potentially be squeezed between these powers in both the economic and security spheres. However, it is important to note that the scs dispute is not, at its core, a China-u.s. issue but rather a dispute over international law and norms, along with numerous disagreements over sovereignty. Thus, South Korea’s position on these issues is part of a complex, geopolitical context but also involves its position on international law and the peaceful settlement of disputes.

For a number of years, South Korea has been fairly quiet on the scs providing little public clarification of its position. In 2015, the United States began to exert pressure on the Park administration to speak out against Chinese actions in the scs. In October 2015, President Park traveled to Washington dc for a summit meeting with Obama. The meeting had been scheduled for June but was postponed due to the outbreak of the mers virus and Park’s need to remain at home to coordinate the government response. During their discussions, Obama brought up the scs and when answering a question at the summit press conference remarked:

So there’s no contradiction between the Republic of Korea having good relations with us, being a central part of our alliance, and having a good relationship – good relations with China.

I think as I communicated to President Park, the only thing that we’re going to continue to insist on is that we want China to abide by international norms and rules. And where they fail to do so, we expect the Republic of Korea to speak out on that, just as we do, because we think that both of our countries have benefitted from the international norms and rules that have been in place since the end of World War ii. And we don’t want to see those rules of the road weakening, or some countries taking advantage because they’re larger. That’s not good for anybody – including South Korea.58

Soon after, rok officials began to present more precise statements of the rok position. At the November 2015 asean Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (admm-Plus), rok Defense Minister Han Min-koo offered South Korea’s first pronouncement by a high ranking official: “The stance of the Republic of Korea is that a peaceful resolution of the South China Sea dispute and the freedom of navigation and flight should be guaranteed. The dispute should be settled peacefully through an agreement among related parties and in accordance with international standards.”59 Later in the month at the 2015 East Asian Summit, President Park called the South China Sea dispute a “grave concern” and that “Korea has consistently stressed that the dispute must be peacefully resolved according to international agreements and code of conduct. China must guarantee the right of free navigation and flight.”60 The Philippines had initiated the case in January 2013, and the tribunal ruled in October 2015 that it had jurisdiction in the matter. With the final ruling expected in summer 2016, it was likely South Korea would have to further clarify its position.

vi pca Ruling: rok Reaction and Implications

The ruling by the pca was announced on July 12, 2016 and was far more favorable to the Philippine side of the case than many had expected. The decision had four key elements. First, the Court rejected China’s claims to the area of the South China Sea enclosed by the nine-dash line. According to the tribunal, China never established exclusive control over the region and any historic claims were extinguished by unclos. Second, the Spratly Islands, including Itu Aba that is currently occupied by Taiwan, are, according to unclos “[r]ocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own [and as a result] shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.” Third, Chinese actions that prevent Philippine fishing, the exploration of oil and gas, and the construction of islands in the Philippine eez are illegal. Finally, Chinese construction of islands begun after the start of the arbitration case aggravated the dispute and caused permanent damage to the marine environment.61

South Korea responded to the ruling the next day with a brief, two paragraph statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

  1. The Government of the Republic of Korea has consistently held the position that the peace and stability, and the freedom of navigation and overflight should be safeguarded in the South China Sea, one of the world’s major sea lines of communication, and that disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved in accordance with relevant agreements, non-militarization commitments, as well as internationally established norms of conduct.

  2. The Government of the Republic of Korea takes note of the arbitration award issued on July 12, and hopes, following the award, that the South China Sea disputes will be resolved through peaceful and creative diplomatic efforts.62

The first paragraph is essentially a restatement of the rok government position that supports international law and the peaceful settlement of disputes. The rok statement acknowledges the importance of “peace and stability” along with the need to protect freedom of navigation and overflight in the scs, a position that is largely in line with Washington and many others in the international community. Resolving the dispute based on “relevant agreements” is an acknowledgement of the importance of unclos and other elements of international law. Finally, the reference to “non-militarization commitments” is a reminder of the assurance Xi Jinping gave to Obama during his August 2016 trip to the White House regarding the Spratlys/Nansha where Xi said, “China does not intend to pursue militarization.”63 Thus, the first paragraph provided no substantive concession to China on the key issues involved in the pca ruling and showed no indication of moving in Beijing’s direction on these points. This paragraph was a strong affirmation of the importance of international law in this matter and consistent with the u.s. position.

However, after giving no substantive ground, in paragraph 2, South Korea was also careful to avoid language that would antagonize China by simply acknowledging the ruling.64 Yet, the last clause of paragraph two was also a practical recognition that despite the ruling, both sides were at an impasse and the matter was far from being resolved. China was not going to follow the legal ruling and any effort to use force to solve the problem would be catastrophic. As a result, the rok government called for “peaceful and creative diplomatic efforts” that might find an alternative diplomatic path to resolving the problem. Thus, the rok government sought to walk a fine line that balanced the competing interests it has at stake in this issue.

The South China Sea dispute and the pca decision may have several important implications for South Korea. First, the ruling may further complicate rok relations between China and the United States. Following the ruling, one rok official who wished to remain anonymous lamented: “The diplomatic situations for us have become very tough.”65 In the wake of the pca ruling, there may be increased pressure on South Korea to speak out in support of the decision and to support the u.s. position on the South China Sea. The Trump administration has had tough words for China and its actions in the South China Sea, indicating it will push back against Chinese actions in the region. However, the United States does not appear to be placing greater pressure on South Korea to support its position, at least for the moment.

In addition, there may be reputational costs internationally if South Korea provides only lukewarm support for a decision that is grounded in international law and the peaceful settlement of disputes. Conversely, while China does not appear to have placed a great deal of public pressure on South Korea to support its side of the scs dispute and the pca ruling, Chinese officials have likely expressed their views quietly and reminded Seoul that a strong rok position that is counter to China’s would damage their relations. These issues are further complicated by Chinese opposition to thaad and the difficulties of dealing with North Korea.

While both sides exert pressure on South Korea, in different ways and both formally and informally, there are also limits to how far Washington and Beijing can and should go in seeking South Korean support for their position. Should either side push too hard, it risks causing problems on other bilateral and regional issues and creating a backlash in South Korea that would be counterproductive. For example, China could exert economic pressure in ways that punish South Korea for supporting the pca decision similar to actions taken in response to the thaad decision. Yet too much Chinese pressure could be counterproductive. Chinese efforts to pressure South Korea in the past including the row over Koguryo in the 2000s,66 illegal Chinese fishing, Ieodo, and the response to the thaad decision have worsened bilateral ties. Over the past few years, Chinese President Xi has made a concerted effort to court South Korea in hopes of pulling Seoul more in its direction and away from the United States. A harsh Chinese response to any of these disagreements risks negating work Xi has done to improve Sino-rok relations and would likely push South Korea closer to the United States and Japan.

Washington would like to see South Korea be a more vocal supporter of its positions on the South China Sea and will continue to ask Seoul to do so. Yet, should the United States push too hard, it also risks a backlash from rok leaders and the public. South Korea is an important ally in the region and pushing too hard would risk alienating Seoul while straining rok-u.s. ties. A level of anti-Americanism remains below the surface in some quarters of South Korea and u.s. pressure that is perceived to be bullying could stir up strong opposition that would be reminiscent of the difficult days of the 2000s for the alliance.

As a result, while South Korea may be caught in the middle of these two powers as they struggle over various issues, China and the United States cannot overplay their hands and have their actions backfire in ways that drive South Korea to the other side. Thus, while South Korea may lack the power these two countries have, it is not powerless. With deft handling and leadership, South Korea may be able to handle the fallout of being caught in the middle of the South China Sea dispute and minimize any negative impact. Moreover, it is important to note that South Korea’s decision should be guided as much by its support for international law and norms as it is by geopolitics.

One element of Sino-rok relations that may be affected by the pca ruling is the settling of their maritime disputes. In June 2016, South Korea and China made another attempt to solve their differences concerning overlapping eez claims. From 1996 to 2008, Seoul and Beijing have held over a dozen rounds of talks to delimit their eezs but to avail. During their 2014 summit, Park and Xi agreed to restart talks and elevate the dialogue from director-level to vice minister-level meetings, a signal of the increased importance of the issue to both governments.68 However, the talks made no substantive progress but both agreed to meet again the following year. In addition to delimiting the eez, the talks will also settle the fate of Ieodo/Suyan. South Korea’s argument for a median line would place Ieodo in its eez while China’s proposal of a proportional settlement would include the reef under Chinese administration. Though Beijing and Seoul have concluded several agreements to manage fishing in their zones, this remains another point of friction that could be aided by a resolution of the eez overlap. South Korea continues to report numerous cases of illegal fishing by Chinese vessels maintaining the Chinese government needs to do more to rein in their activities.69 On the one hand, it is possible that China’s negotiating position on these issues may become more firm in the wake of the pca decision and South Korea’s stance on the ruling. On the other hand, China may have been pleased with rok efforts to craft a nuanced response. Moreover, the ruling may prompt Beijing to be more forthcoming in resolving its maritime concerns with Seoul in a renewed effort to woo South Korea and show that it does support international law and the peaceful settlement of disputes. In the end, it is unclear how Chinese leaders have viewed South Korea’s careful response to the ruling and there could also be no difference in China’s negotiating position.

A second possible outcome is that the pca decision may encourage other States to pursue arbitration, even if one side in the dispute refuses to participate. South Korea has some vulnerability on this since Japan has threatened on a few occasions to take the Dokdo/Takeshima case to the International Court of Justice. Indeed, rok Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck commented after the pca decision: “the contents of the ruling and the legal implications [and the relevance of the ruling to the Dokdo issue] will be scrupulously examined by the government.”70 In addition, though China has not threatened to do so, might it challenge South Korea’s administration of Ieodo and the building of the research station on the reef in some form of arbitration?

South Korea is likely safe on all accounts, despite the pca ruling, because these states are all involved in disputes whose own claims are either based on tenuous legal grounds or have little to gain by seeking arbitration creating a circumstance of “mutual assured arbitration.” Akin to the Cold War nuclear weapons concept of mutual assured destruction, most of the players in the region have vulnerabilities regarding their maritime claims that make it unlikely one will pursue legal action against the other. For example, China will likely not pursue an arbitration case against either South Korea or Japan anytime soon because it would undercut its efforts to delegitimize the pca ruling and the jurisdiction claimed by the tribunal. To ignore the pca case and then pursue one of its own would be self-defeating for China and will not happen.

Though Japan has suggested it might pursue arbitration over Dokdo/Takeshima, it is vulnerable over its claims to Okinotori. The area is an atoll with only two small boulders exposed above the water. Japan has built up the area spending $250 million to construct concrete casings to protect the outcroppings from further deterioration. Japan claims sovereignty over Okinotori along with a 200 nm eez that would entitle it to a 116,474 square nm eez and control of the fish and mineral resources within the zone.71 However, these “islands” do not qualify as such under unclos and according to maritime scholar Jon Van Dyke, “you simply can’t make a plausible claim that Okinotori should be able to generate a 200 [nautical]-mile zone.”72 Moreover, if Japan filed a case concerning Dokdo/Takeshima, it is not at all certain that Japan has a sufficiently strong case to win. While this might give the Japanese government the political cover to abandon its claim, a defeat would be embarrassing and might open Japan up to similar suits over other claims. Japan can tolerate the status quo and will likely not follow through on an arbitration case. Finally, the status quo is essentially in South Korea’s favor. It occupies Dokdo and maintains administrative control over Ieodo with no incentive to submit either of these two disputes to arbitration. Though South Korea appears to have a stronger case, it is not airtight; Seoul has a lot to lose but little to gain by pursuing arbitration over Dokdo. As a result of all of these factors, China, Japan, and South Korea have mutual vulnerabilities that make it unlikely they will test the waters with more arbitration cases despite the pca ruling.

Another issue arising from the pca ruling that will likely have an effect on the future of Dokdo/Takeshima is the determination that the Spratly islands, including Itu Aba, are, according to unclos article 121, para. 3 rocks, not islands and “Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.”73 Though South Korea maintains a contingent of police and coast guard personnel on Dokdo and in the past, an elderly couple resided on the islands, under the interpretation of article 121 para. 3 as noted in the pca ruling, Dokdo is more accurately characterized as “rocks” and would likely be granted only a 12 nm territorial sea and not a 200 nm eez. As a result, the value of possessing Dokdo/Takeshima would be reduced but would continue to be substantial, especially for South Korea as Dokdo’s value goes well beyond economics.

Finally, is it possible the pca ruling could have some type of impact on the North–south dispute over the nll? North Korea has signed but not ratified unclos, and as a result, has an obligation to support the “objectives and purpose of the treaty.” However, its status does not allow it to bring a case for arbitration under the agreement. Yet, is it possible that Pyongyang might feel further emboldened to challenge the nll either through military provocations or politically with more vehement protests forcing South Korea to defend its position that is not fully supported by international law? It is certainly possible, but it is unclear whether North Korea’s behavior will be affected in any way by the pca ruling. In any case, the nll will remain as it is, at least until the security situation improves.

vii Conclusion

Despite the pca ruling, the disputes and claims in the scs are a long way from being settled, if they ever will be. Yet the importance of international law and the cases that clarify that law are essential for helping to maintain peace and stability, not only in the maritime domain but in others as well. South Korea’s position in these disputes is part of a complicated array of competing interests with different stakes that require careful management. In part, these issues concern South Korea’s interests and role in building and supporting the development of international law to help maintain regional as well as global peace and stability. South Korea has been an active participate and leader in numerous international forums dealing with economics and nuclear security and its potential role in maintaining international maritime law can be another important contribution. Indeed, given South Korea’s geography as a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the ocean and its commercial interests and dependence on trade means that South Korea has a great deal at stake in these issues.

Yet, as is usually the case, legal issues are often bound up in geopolitical and security matters that further complicate decision making and often trump the role of international law. South Korean leaders have sought to strike a delicate balance that supports its interests in international law that aligns with the position of the United States while not being overly blunt and direct in its challenge to Chinese actions. So far South Korea has been able to maintain the balance of its competing interests in the legal, geopolitical, and economic spheres, and the initial reactions of Beijing and Washington in the wake of the pca ruling seem to indicate South Korea was relatively successful in this balancing act. Moreover, South Korea is not completely powerless in its dilemma of being caught between two powers because its economic, political, and military clout gives it some degree of leverage in its relations with China and the United States.

The crucial variable will be Sino-u.s. relations. It does no one any good if these ties deteriorate and it is crucial that Beijing and Washington work to improve their relationship. However, should relations worsen and tensions increase, South Korea could find itself in an increasingly difficult spot concerning the scs and other issues. For example, might pressure grow for the rok Navy to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the scs with other States? It is incumbent on all parties to find methods that can lower tension levels and seek to find permanent solutions that solve these disputes based on international law and norms. For all concerned, the stakes are too high to fail.

u.s. Naval War College. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the Navy, the u.s. Department of Defense or the u.s. government.

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Article 121(3), unclos.

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