Can BRI find a wave of peace for the Korean peninsula?

South and North Korea have been divided for the past 77 years since 1953. Historical incidents and conversations between both countries have lasted to keep the peace in East Asia, but still, tensions and conflicts have remained. It was all caused by the lack of a chance to communicate and negotiate the project together.

The Belt and Road Initiative, known as BRI, is China’s trade strategy to gather all the economic power from Asia to Africa. It was launched in 2013 and the Chinese government mainly lent money to participant countries and took a role on the ground for them. The Chinese government has designed this project to connect the Middle East with East Asia and build a systemic infrastructure and transportation system.

Under this project, the Korean peninsula’s role is significant to China. Since North Korea is located between South Korea and China and its territory reaches Russia, North Korea will be a critical point to China.

“The outcome of BRI depends on North Korea’s response,” Shin Jeong-Seung, a former ambassador of China, said. “In particular, China’s three northeastern provinces show much interest in the inter-Korea railway connection.”

Furthermore, China emphasized South Korea could be closer to advancing to the Asia continent and achieving the reunification of Korea so that China could secure South Korea’s proficient technology. It seems a win-win strategy for the Korean peninsula because it could relieve an indefinite nation division and ease the tension in East Asia.

“We look forward to implementing various projects that can jointly advance to Asia countries and create synergy together,” Moon Jae-In, the president of South Korea, said.

Multiple government organizations in South Korea said BRI would not only be a way of expanding cooperation with North Korea through China but also produce tangible economic achievements. However, compared to its rosy outlook, many experts worried about whether BRI could be helpful for the peace of the Korean peninsula, as many doubts and questions remain.

“Korea has little room to participate in the BRI project,” Kim Han-Kwon, a professor at the Nation Diplomatic Academy, said. “If you closely look into this project, it mainly adapts and consumes China’s products such as human resources and commodities, so it’s hard to make the synergy. Moreover, as opposed to the time and effort that Korea will put in, it would be challenging to expect visible results.”

As BRI was blamed for forcing its trading partner countries into excessive debt, South Korea’s participation in BRI is getting complicated. Countries such as Nepal, Malaysia and Pakistan faced unprecedented debt repayment. Others slightly took an opposing stance to the BRI project, which instead brought out a negative image of China. Therefore, the U.S. started to check the BRI and organized new projects led by democratic countries such as “Build Back Better World” and “Quad.”

Korea has mostly earned economic profits from China as a trading partner. Based on China’s economic retaliation against deploying “THAAD” on the Korean peninsula, Korea’s decision to BRI significantly impacted Korea’s economy. However, at the same time, Korea has been protected by the U.S. in military and political aspects, so it might be difficult for South Korea to state an independent opinion on BRI. Suppose Korea assertively declares its participation in BRI. In that case, they are expected to be denounced by the U.S. Therefore, Korea has the assignment to find the proper balance between the complex national interests.

“Korea’s basic position to find a point of contact between Korea’s diplomatic policy and BRI for East Asia’s peace,” Lee, a government official, said.

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