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KEI Spotlight

KEI Senior Director Troy Stangarone Reviews Seoul's "Three Noes"

November 5, 2019

When Beijing and Seoul agreed to resume normal economic ties in 2017 after a fractious dispute over the deployment of U.S. missile defense batteries in South Korea, there were rumblings in some corners of the policymaking community that the Moon administration was drifting from the U.S. alliance.

At the heart of this worry was that Seoul had committed to “three noes” with Beijing:

  1. No additional deployment of THAAD batteries.

  2. No South Korean integration into a U.S.-led regional missile defense system.

  3. No trilateral alliance with the United States and Japan.

Two years on, KEI Senior Director and Fellow Troy Stangarone reviews the impact of South Korea’s “three noes” and concludes that Seoul had given away nothing of substance to Beijing. Moreover, it did not lead to closer ties between the two countries.

Stangarone does not believe that the South Korean government promised anything of substance to China:

  • There were no additional THAAD batteries available to be deployed to the Korean peninsula at the time.

  • The idea of South Korea joining an integrated missile defense system – much less a trilateral alliance — wasn’t a real option on the table at the time.

The “three noes” had been South Korea's positions prior to the agreement. South Korea emphasized that “Seoul has consistently made clear [to China that] any issues that can restrict our security sovereignty would never be subject to negotiation.”

Stangarone also points out that Seoul's ties with Beijing did not deepen in the aftermath of the agreement:

  • In the 18 months from January of 2017, South Korean company Lotte suffered losses of $1.7 billion in China.

  • Chinese tourism to South Korea dropped by nearly half as Beijing prohibited group tours to South Korea. As a result, the South Korean tourism industry may have lost upwards of $24 billion over the last two and a half years.

  • China had also suspended all high-level defense dialogue with Seoul. The strategic defense dialogue only resumed in October of this year.

Instead of drifting into the China orbit, the whole experience left Seoul more wary of Beijing than before. 

The vulnerability that was revealed through this incident was not any action from South Korea, but rather the absence of U.S. support when Seoul was under economic coercion from Beijing. Whether the United States was unable or unwilling to intervene, Stangarone believes that Washington must still address its failure to act. That may be the real legacy of the “three noes.”

Read the full article here