“When whales fight, the shrimp’s back is broken.” So goes the old Korean saying lamenting the peninsula’s crap luck in being stuck between the whales of East Asia: China and Japan, Russia and the US.
Over the past two centuries, those great powers have battled for regional supremacy on Korean soil — in pretty much every combination imaginable. Japan and China struggled over Korea for millennia, Japan finally gaining free rein after defeating the Chinese in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. Japan then crushed Russia’s East Asian ambitions, destroying the Russian fleet in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. America and the Soviet Union, in turn, defeated Japan in World War II, leaving Korea an independent but divided country.
During the Korean War of 1950-53, the US and its South Korean allies fought Soviet-backed North Korea and China’s People’s Liberation Army head-on. More than 2.5 million Korean civilians were killed or wounded.
In short, Korea has come to embody the fundamental experience of being a shrimp: It sucks to be tasty. The country’s back has not been only broken, it’s been fully severed.
The whole dynamic is inverting — the whales are trying to court the shrimp.
Its head, South Korea, grew wealthy, democratized, and eventually became a global brand. Samsung. Hyundai. Psy. Even Snoop Dogg has got in on South Korea’s “Gangnam Style” — although like the rest of us, he has developed a “Hangover” with Psy.
North Korea has become the ass. To see the difference between the North and South, just check out this satellite photo of the peninsula at night. South Korea is lit up like a brain scan of a teenager listening to K-pop — on repeat. The country is the most connected in the world. Its internet is up to 50 times faster than yours. In North Korea, only Pyongyang has lights.
For years, the conflict over Korea has been frozen along the same divide — North vs. South and, by proxy, China vs. America. Now, with China on the rise, the region is in flux once more. And the whole dynamic is inverting — the whales are trying to court the shrimp.
Chinese Premier Xi Jinping just concluded a state visit to South Korea, reciprocating a state visit to China by South Korean President Park Geun-hye a year ago. The two leaders have met five times, leading some analysts to speculate whether “Park prefers Xi over Obama.” Xi has yet to visit North Korea or even meet with Kim, a deliberate snub to its long-time ally.
At the same time, Japan just announced that it is easing sanctions on arch-enemy North Korea. The Obama administration is in a mad dash to try and ease rising tensions between South Korea and Japan. North Korea, for its part, is being an ass — and an unstable one at that. In the last two weeks, it has fired ballistic missiles off its coast, threatened war over the newest Seth Rogen film, and offered to cease all “hostile military activities” with South Korea.
What the Hell Is Going On in East Asia?
For China, Xi’s visit to South Korea is part of a longer-term strategy to weaken America’s alliances and supplant the US as regional leader. Xi came to power in March 2013 with the aim of launching a “charm offensive” to improve ties with China’s neighbors. Since then, he’s found himself enmeshed in disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Japan. (Pro-tip: When trying to improve your regional standing, don’t pick disputes with all your neighbors at once.)
Xi’s relationship with North Korea has also been rocky. Supreme Leader Kim Jung-un tested a nuclear weapon in February 2013 during Xi’s transition to power, causing China a considerable diplomatic headache. Kim also killed off one of China’s closest allies within the North Korean leadership — his own uncle and no. 2. (Pro-tip: Don’t kill your most important ally’s friend, and never take the no. 2 job in North Korea.)
'A key factor in the warming ties between China and South Korea is economics.'
South Korea is the exception. “It is the only country in the region where ties with China have improved under Xi,” Andrew Small, a fellow with the German Marshall Fund’s Asia program, told VICE News.
Ziad Haider, the Asia director of the Truman National Security Project and former White House Fellow in the Obama administration, told VICE News that "a key factor in the warming ties between China and South Korea is economics.”
South Korea’s two-way trade with China totaled $275 billion last year, more than 40 times China’s commerce with North Korea. The South’s business with Beijing is more than its combined trade with Japan and the US. Xi and Park reportedly discussed prospects of a free trade agreement during their summit.
The Chinese also sense widening space between America’s two key allies in the region: South Korea and Japan. Both China and South Korea have a shared memory of Japanese militarism — and a fear that Japan may be moving back towards that direction. Japan committed extensive war crimes in both China and South Korea, including enslaving hundreds of thousands of women as sex slaves, so-called “comfort women.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sparked anger in both countries by visiting Tokyo’s Yasakuni Shrine to Japan’s war dead. Japan is also in the process of revising its constitutional prohibition against war to allow its Self-Defense Forces to act in “collective self-defense” or to aid a friendly country under attack.
'The US has been actively encouraging Japan and South Korea to resolve their issues because we have a strong interest in maintaining a unified front among our allies.'
From China's point of view, there’s an opportunity to try to exploit some of the gap that the Abe government may have exacerbated between South Korea and Japan and, by extension, the US.
Both China and South Korea are also involved in maritime disputes with Japan. China even built a museum with South Korea that honors a Korean national hero, Ahn Jung-geun, who assassinated Japan’s first Resident General of Korea while he was visiting the Chinese city of Harbin in 1909.
There’s also pandas. Xi brought China’s famed Panda Diplomacy to Seoul, offering to send the country a pair of pandas following the visit.
For the American government, this presents problems. First off, we also get our pandas from China. Then, the widening gap between Japan and South Korea opens tensions within America’s alliance structure.
"The US has been actively encouraging Japan and South Korea to resolve their issues because we have a strong interest in maintaining a unified front among our allies in north-east Asia," said Haider. Obama even brokered the first meeting between Park and Abe earlier this spring in the Netherlands.
What does the visit mean to the US-South Korean relationship?
Haider doesn't think that these developments will lead to a fundamental reorientation of South Korea towards China and away from the US. “There is little strategic glue holding China and South Korea together," he said. "But it certainly adds to the fluidity of the region."
Small agreed: “It doesn’t necessarily mean South Korea peeling off from the US side, but it continues to put pressure on the scope for Japan to deepen its ties with other leading US allies in the region.”
The battle for East Asian supremacy continues. And this time the shrimp has a role to play.
Follow Ari Ratner on Twitter: @amratner