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South Korea’s Approach to the Taiwan Problem

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Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Taiwan issue has been a major source of contention in Beijing. Taiwan has caused tension in China’s relations with both the United States (US) and its allies, particularly after the trade wars initiated by the US against China due to the trade deficit in 2018. Former Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi stated on June 25, 2021, that China had sent 28 warplanes to Taiwan and emphasized that the security of the island is inextricably linked to Japan’s security.[1] The tension rose after US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island in August 2022. Although this issue does not lead to hot conflict, it is still being discussed.

The fact that issue was brought up during the Xi Jinping-Joe Biden meeting held before the G20 Heads of State Summit held on 15-16 November 2022 and the US and Chinese Defense Ministers’ meeting held during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Plus Defense Ministers Summit is the most visible indication of the region’s high tension. Furthermore, Beijing’s request to Washington to take concrete steps to demonstrate its commitment to the “One China Policy” revealed that the issue remains serious for Beijing.[2]

South Korea, which has close relations with the US, has serious concerns about this problem. Because Beijing continues to support Pyongyang despite the nuclear threat posed by North Korea’s increasing military activities. In fact, Russia, and China both voted against the draft resolution condemning North Korea in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). As a reflection of this, South Korean Leader Yoon Suk-yeol also touched upon the Taiwan Issue in his interview about North Korea on November 29, 2022. Yoon stated that a unilateral change in the status quo cannot be accepted in Taiwan and that the problem should be resolved within the framework of international law.[3]

As might be expected, South Korea is in a dilemma about Taiwan. Because China is South Korea’s most important trade total. South Korean exports to China totaled 12.1 billion dollars in October 2022, according to data.[4] In the same period, its exports to the US amounted to 8.5 billion dollars.[5] In other words, South Korea has much stronger commercial ties with China than it does with the US, its most important military and political ally.

When we look at Taiwan-South Korea trade relations, we can see that Taiwan has a trade deficit with South Korea, which grew to 10.5 billion dollars in 2021. It is known that this deficit will increase even more in 2022.[6] As a matter of fact, as of October 2022, South Korea’s exports to Taiwan are 179.3 million dollars.[7]

Given the countries’ economic relations and trade deficit, it can be stated that, while South Korea does not openly support Taiwan’s independence, it views the preservation of the status quo in relations as a situation in its favour.

In a political sense, South Korea has a North Korea problem. Furthermore, as tensions between Beijing and Washington grew, China’s support for North Korea became more concrete. For example, various UNSC votes against North Korea were initiated by the US in October and November 2022, but China opposed the votes and blamed the US administration for North Korea’s military actions.

South Korea, on the other hand, wants China to help contain North Korea. However, Beijing does not want to do that. China’s stance is motivated by several factors. To begin with, North Korea serves as a buffer between American soldiers stationed on South Korean territory and the Chinese Army. In addition, the strengthening of North Korea’s military capacity means an increase in Beijing’s influence in the region, as it is an ally of North Korea. Of course, China gives great importance to this.

On the other hand, according to the news made by Voice of America (VoA) on November 1, 2022, Russian and Chinese warplanes entered South Korean air defence identification zone without permission due to the American soldiers stationed in the region. The Seoul administration, on the other hand, flew its warplanes to ensure security.[8] While all these events heightened tensions between China and the US, they also heightened tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul.

Undoubtedly, China’s policies affect South Korea’s approach to the Taiwan Issue. In this context, the Seoul administration’s statement that unilaterally changing the status quo is unacceptable should be assessed from two perspectives. Although Beijing interprets the situation to mean that Taiwan’s independence cannot be accepted, Taipei interprets it to mean that China’s intervention in the region is unacceptable.

In conclusion, South Korea’s approach to the Taiwan Question should be evaluated in two ways. On the one hand, Beijing has surpassed the United States as South Korea’s largest trading partner in terms of export intensity; on the other hand, China’s support for North Korea and Pyongyang’s military activities concerns the Seoul administration. Hence, South Korea opposes Taiwan’s independence due to its trade activities with China and advocates for the preservation of the status quo.


[1]  Isabel Reynolds-Emi Nobuhiro, “Japan Sees China-Taiwan Friction as Threat to Its Security”, Bloomberg, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-06-24/japan-sees-china-taiwan-friction-as-threat-to-its-security?leadSource=uverify%20wall, (Date of Accession: 29.11.2022).

[2] Jiang Chenglong, “US Called on to Respect China’s Core Interests”, China Daily, www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202211/23/WS637d5806a31049175432b510.html, (Date of Accession: 23.11.2022).

[3] Soyoung Kim vd., “Exclusive: South Korea’s Yoon Warns of Unprecedented Response to North Korea Nuclear Test, Calls on China to Do More “, Reuters, www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/south-koreas-yoon-says-china-can-change-north-koreas-behaviour-if-it-wants-2022-11-28/, (Date of Accession: 29.11.2022).

[4] “South Korea Total Exports to USA”, CEIC, www.ceicdata.com/en/indicator/korea/total-exports-to-usa, (Date of Accession: 29.11.2022).

[5] “South Korea Total Exports to China”, CEIC, www.ceicdata.com/en/indicator/korea/total-exports-to-china#:~:text=in%20Oct%202022%3F-,South%20Korea%20Total%20Exports%20to%20China%20recorded%2012.154%20USD%20bn,table%20below%20for%20more%20data, (Date of Accession: 29.11.2022).

[6] “Taiwan’s Trade Deficit with South Korea Persists in 2022”, Focus Taiwan, focustaiwan.tw/business/202210180016, (Date of Accession:18.11.2022).

[7] “South Korea Exports to Taiwan”, Trading Economics, tradingeconomics.com/south-korea/exports-to-taiwan#:~:text=Exports%20to%20Taiwan%20in%20South%20Korea%20averaged%201459441.32%20USD%20THO,South%20Korea%20Exports%20to%20Taiwan., (Date of Accession: 01.12.2022).

[8] “South Korea Scrambles Jets After Chinese, Russian Warplanes Approach”, VOA, www.voanews.com/a/south-korea-scrambles-jets-after-chinese-russian-warplanes-approach/6856117.html, (Date of Accession: 30.11.2022).

Elcan TOKMAK
Elcan Tokmak, 2022 yılında Gazi Üniversitesi İktisadi ve İdari Bilimler Fakültesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nden mezun olmuştur. Halihazırda ANKASAM bünyesindeki stajına devam eden Tokmak; Çin, Kore ve Japonya üzerine çalışmalar yapmaktadır. Tokmak, ileri düzeyde İngilizce, orta seviyede Çince ve başlangıç düzeyinde Korece bilmektedir.