What if South Korea Starts Sharing Secrets With China?

on September 11 | in Asia-Pacific, Intelligence Collection

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South Korea’s press and television media were all abuzz earlier this month over President Park Geun-hye’s attendance at China’s commemoration of the end of World War II (also known as “Victory Day”). News debate programs discussed the significance of the visit from the domestic and foreign policy optics. Opinion columns even speculated where the President would be standing — to the right or left of President Xi Jinping — and what that arrangement would indicate about the trajectory of the dyadic South Korea-China relations.

Park’s travel to Beijing is noteworthy on a couple levels. On one level, it’s making North Korea and Japan uneasy. Both countries have been facing some diplomatic and economic hurdles of late. Pyongyang and Beijing no longer share an intimate “lips and teeth” relationship. The Kim regime also dealt a pretty tough diplomatic defeat during the marathon inter-Korean talks held in late August, having to issue an apology for the land mine explosions along the DMZ.

Japan, too, is dealing with cold-shouldering, and frustrations were manifest in an extreme-right publication likening President Park to Korea’s Queen Min, who was brutally assassinated by the Japanese in the 19th century.

Yet on another, more strategic level, it’s forcing South Korea observers to reexamine the status of the ROK’s relations with the U.S. Its “security with the U.S., economy with China” stance might start to shift to a position that is less clearly delineated, with more cooperation with Beijing on security and political matters. We can speculate some probable consequences to the U.S.-South Korea security cooperation. For instance, Seoul may depend less on Washington as its go-to defense backup and seek to diversify its military cooperation activities with other countries, including China.

But what about the impact on the U.S.-South Korea intelligence cooperation, particularly with respect to North Korea? The U.S. intelligence community boasts the world’s most advanced collection capabilities. South Korea, on the other hand, shares a border and language with the DPRK. The combined U.S.-ROK intelligence collection and analysis effort results in a very strong, targeted, and effective partnership.

But Beijing is also a pretty reliable gatherer of North Korean intelligence. Like Seoul, it also shares a border with the DPRK. Many North Koreans defect to China to either settle in the country or use the PRC as a thoroughfare of migrations into the ROK. Border guards and citizens living along the North Korea-China border have firsthand insights into a number of topics — market and living conditions of ordinary North Korean citizens, illicit networks, political stability and the leadership’s authoritative power, social trends, et cetera.

There would also be some advantages to Seoul pursuing intelligence cooperation with Beijing. Inter-Korean reunification has become a hot discussion topic in recent years, with people weighing in as to the number of years left in the regime’s survival.

Seoul has already considered sharing North Korean intelligence with China. In 2014, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se recommended an intelligence sharing pact as a way to deepen trust between the two countries.

President Park also seems to be considering a greater Chinese role in pressuring North Korea. In her recent summit with President Xi, she thanked him for Beijing’s “constructive role” in the recent inter-Korean scuffle. The two jointly warned Pyongyang against further provocations, and are also working to bring the recalcitrant DPRK back to the long-stalled Six-Party Talks on ending the North’s nuclear program.

While it’s unlikely that Seoul would downgrade its standing intelligence cooperation with Washington to work with Beijing on the North Korea target, it wouldn’t be farfetched for China to play a greater role with one of America’s closest allies. And Seoul may pitch this new configuration as a “future-oriented” evolution of sorts.

If and when Seoul and Beijing decide to share intelligence on the DPRK, Washington will need to reexamine its own intelligence cooperation with the ROK. It will have to consider and prevent China from obtaining U.S. intelligence. The IC may have to restrict or sterilize some of the intelligence being shared with the South Koreans.

Conversely, the South Korean intelligence service may also choose to stovepipe its intelligence sharing — certain information may only be shared with the PRC (or only with the U.S.) When China’s involvement is factored in, U.S.-South Korea intelligence exchanges may become less exclusive and more filtered.

For South Korea, there is clear utility in sharing intelligence on the DPRK with China — the two countries could join forces to address intelligence gaps the U.S.-ROK intelligence partnership cannot handle due to logistical, linguistic, or geographical limitations. But as beneficial as this partnership may be, Seoul should keep in mind Washington’s strategic value to peninsular stability, which cannot be replicated or replaced by another country.

If Korea’s reunification actually comes about, it will not be easy to handle the wide-ranging aftermath of merging two countries that have been separated for over six decades.

Washington’s future discretion in intelligence sharing with Seoul is justified. Compromising its collection methods and sources would not only undo the vast amounts of financial and human resources invested into the North Korea target.

But with peninsular reunification in the picture, it needs to consider what role it would like to play in this massive upheaval. If the U.S. wants to have a minimal, least costly part in the multinational effort — i.e., hand over the leadership baton to Beijing, it should exercise discretion. But if the U.S. wants to influence reunification to support peace and democracy, perhaps it should consider a three-way intelligence sharing relationship to bring about a smooth transition into a unified Korea.

It’s our choice.

Soo Kim is a former CIA analyst and linguist for Northeast Asia. She specializes in leadership dynamics, decision-making, authoritarian regimes, and political psychology. She is currently a national security fellow at a DC-based think tank.

photo: From the 2013 China-South Korean summit (KoreaNet).

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