South Korean President Moon Jae-in said that the South Korean government is not considering a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics on Monday at a joint press conference during his state visit to Australia. “We haven’t received any requests from any countries, including the U.S., to participate,” Moon said. “South Korea is trying to maintain a harmonious relationship with China while building on a solid alliance with the U.S.”
Even though President Moon’s statement is one reconfirms the government’s stance, which has been announced by the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since last week, it carries a different weight. Since the U.S. announced a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics, citing China’s violation of human rights, Cheong Wa Dae said it’s not considering it and the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs said the country will play the role as the host country of the previous Olympics. As the president repeated the same stance, the fact that South Korea is not (currently) considering it started to sound like the country will not participate in a boycott.
Of course, South Korea is not in the same situation as other countries that quickly decided to join the boycott, including Australia, which responded to China’s wolf warrior diplomacy with a nuclear submarine alliance. However, South Korea’s stance looks more like that of France to refuse the boycott, which has historically showcased resistance to following the U.S., than that of Japan, which seems to be positively responding to the boycott but pondering a way to avoid it. In fact, China complimented South Korea for being an “Olympics family.”
South Korea is trying to balance between the U.S. and China under the name of strategic ambiguity in the midst of the two countries’ tensions. It may be an unavoidable choice to protect national interests between the U.S., an ally on which South Korea’s security depends, and China, the closest neighbor and the biggest trading partner. However, such balancing is a highly advanced act. A small misstep can cause critical damage. As the U.S. and China collide with each other for different ideologies, South Korea will find itself in a precarious situation.
For smart diplomacy between the U.S. and China, South Korea should strike a balance for each matter between universal values and national interests under clear principles and rules. Sending delicate messages is more important than anything else. South Korea has not expressed any concerns about China’s violation of human rights, which is the root cause of the boycott. This resulted in South Korea looking like siding with China. It is surely a failure of message management, which is likely to cause misunderstanding by the U.S. South Korea should not make the mistake of thinking that the U.S. will understand anything as an ally. Balancing between the two sides requires skills.