The Korean Angle on Crimean Fallout
America's Perception Gap

by Seong-Hyon Lee
April 22, 2014

This is one of five essays in the roundtable “Asia-Pacific Perspectives on the Ukraine Crisis.”

From Asia’s perspective, the United States is not doing much to help the region shed the worries in some circles that U.S power is declining. This view has gained steam amid a series of incidents that have raised concerns that the United States is abdicating its global responsibilities as a great superpower. Crimea is the latest example in that trend trajectory. The crisis cuts to the heart of a much broader debate in Asia over whether the United States is declining. The United States thus suffers from a gap in perception: it appears to underestimate how its actions and inaction are interpreted by the rest of the world, which has for decades looked up to the United States as a model.

In the view of many Asian observers, the United States did not assert its position on Crimea clearly enough through concrete actions and therefore created confusion. South Korea looks at the crisis from its own geopolitical security perspective. It is a country where “the rise of China” is keenly observed due to geographic proximity and historical experience. The crisis conjured up the old South Korean victimization psychology, which suggests that what happened to Crimea could happen to the Korean Peninsula as well. The immediate threat conjured in the popular South Korean imagination was that China could conduct similar acts with regard to North Korea. From this perspective, Seoul naturally questions the credibility of U.S. preparedness for such a contingency.

South Korea is a severely polarized country in terms of its views on North Korea and the United States. What is the best approach to North Korea? Is the United States a model nation or a benign superpower that occasionally forces its views on its smaller allies? Depending on whom you ask, you get different answers. But what is certain is that there is a perception in South Korea that China’s rise is a formidable reality in the region, one that is bound to change the present world order. Against this backdrop, the question remains: if the United States failed to dissuade Russia’s advance into Crimea, can the United States manage China in Asia?

There were four incidents preceding the Crimean crisis that shaped Asian views of the U.S. response. The first was the ambiguity in the wording and definition surrounding the “new type of great power relations.” China declared to the region that the United States bought into the idea of China’s version of the Monroe Doctrine. According to this account, the United States recognized China’s leadership in Asia, while China recognized the U.S. sphere of influence in Europe and the Middle East. The North Korean nuclear issue was supposed to serve as the testing ground for this new relationship between the United States and China, in which Washington believed it had gained Beijing’s cooperation, but very little positive change was observed. While the United States has said that it rejects China’s interpretation of this new relationship, the concept still raises serious concerns in Korea and elsewhere in Asia.

The second incident was president Obama’s postponement of his planned trip to Asia last year. While Asian nations understood that the U.S. leader was preoccupied with averting the “fiscal cliff,” that situation also demonstrated to Asian audiences that the United States faced a very tough domestic challenge that meant its leader could not afford to carry out a scheduled overseas commitment. This was unbecoming of a superpower, and raised concerns in Asia about America’s ability to sustain its focus on the region.

Third, from a specifically Korean angle, there was frustration with the United States’ failure to deliver justice and proactively mediate the dispute between its two Asian allies: South Korea and Japan. The purported rationale was that the United States did not want to take sides, but some Korean strategists took Washington to be hedging between Seoul and Tokyo. By extension, this was seen as demonstrating a lack of confidence by the United States in handling its alliance relationships.

Fourth, South Korea has been disappointed by Washington’s lack of leverage over China to act on the North Korean nuclear issue. The dynamics of how a big power influences another big power are a keenly observed item by third-party audiences with respect to the pecking order of international leadership. The series of U.S. pronouncements about China’s supposed policy change on North Korea, including Obama’s famous statement that China was “recalculating” its posture, have yet to yield any real substance. The Chinese foreign ministry even made a statement late last year that it would continue to promote the “traditional friendly relationship” with North Korea in the wake of the bloody purge of Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The statement was surprising because it was given in the language of the Cold War era and indicates deepening China–North Korea ties, contrary to the common outside expectations.

From Crimea to North Korea, from the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands to the South China Sea, from the new Chinese air defense identification zone in the East China Sea to China’s human rights record, the United States has been increasingly seen in Asia as decreasing its commitment to uphold justice. Meanwhile, Beijing has been making a robust charm offensive toward Seoul to lessen the latter’s traditional threat perception toward China and successfully drive a wedge between Seoul and Tokyo while Washington looked on. Seoul has also begun to gain a more sober understanding of the reality on the ground. Even if Washington makes its words loud and clear, declaring a “rebalance to Asia,” the United States will elect to prioritize its own interests in the end. There is a view that even if the United States has such a will to rebalance, it may not be able to put this policy into action due to its own capacity constraints.

As U.S. red lines shift in global hot spots, the United States also redefines its place in the world. Russia’s actions on Crimea were horrific. Yet they also strangely imbued a sense of awe in many observers; Russia demonstrated its red line and stuck to it through decisive actions. That is a type of leadership rarely seen these days. In the case of North Korea, Chinese interlocutors have long whispered in private conversations that Washington appears to lack a red line in dealing with Pyongyang. Some argue Washington’s red line is full nuclearization. Others believe it is nuclear proliferation. The United States’ choice to shift its red lines in dealing with China, North Korea, the Middle East, and Crimea creates the risk of miscalculation and the perception that Washington is unable to manage global crises as it confidently did in the past. Managing that perception will be the first order of business in re-establishing the United States’ global authority.

Seong-hyon Lee is the 2013-14 Pantech Fellow in Korean Studies at Stanford University’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

This is one of five essays in the roundtable “Asia-Pacific Perspectives on the Ukraine Crisis.”

1. Crimea: A Silver Lining for the United States’ Asian Allies?

    By Rory Medcalf

2. India Risks Losing Out in a “Contest of Ideas”

    By Brahma Chellaney

3. Taiwan Is No Crimea, But…

    By Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang

4. Japan’s “Proactive Contribution to Peace” and the Annexation of Crimea

    By Tetsuo Kotani

5. The Korean Angle on Crimean Fallout: America’s Perception Gap

    By Seong-hyon Lee