Korea-China ties : 12 years mark gains but challenges loom

When South Korea shook hands with old-foe and largest neighbor China a dozen years ago to establish formal diplomatic ties, it was the beginning of what for all purposes was a win-win relationship to bring peace, prosperity and unity to Northeast Asia.

Since the reopening of official relations in 1992, Seoul and Beijing, who fought against each other in the 1950-53 Korean War, have become major trading partners, apart from myriad exchanges in culture and other aspects of society.

From economy and trade, politics and diplomacy to military and security, the two sides took a quantum leap toward an unbreakable knot.

"The past 12 years have been more than promising for both Korea and China in terms of trade and interchanges. They have made vast impressions on each other, and the relationship has been a vital part of growth for the two countries both economically and politically," professor Lee Tae-hwan of Sejong Institute told The Korea Herald.

Hardly had ties been sealed when Korean businesses sprouted up all over mainland China, eager for a piece of Asia`s biggest market. Education-conscious Korean parents jumped at the chance to send their children to China to study and learn a language spoken by a quarter of the world`s population.

For more than a decade now, Chinese has been a hot language choice for Koreans, promising a prosperous future in working with or in a country with the world`s largest workforce. Last year alone some 36,000 Koreans were studying in schools in China while more than 60,000 Chinese took Korean as a second language.

South Korea has definitely made its mark on the middle kingdom. The "Korean Wave" has swept through China`s young and old, winning the hearts of tens of millions of Chinese through Korea`s music, television, film, heartthrob stars and even video games, and opening up a gigantic audience.

A survey in Korea early this year showed that 80 percent of politicians ranked China as this nation`s most important trade and business partner.

The relations between the two sides have been boosted by joint efforts to bring about a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, with China hosting the six-nation talks to try to resolve the standoff over North Korea`s nuclear weapons ambitions.

As Pyongyang`s oldest and closest ally, Beijing is trying to coax the reclusive communist regime to follow its example in opening up to the world to reap the benefits of being a member of the international community.

"China is North Korea`s role model. The North, needing to rely on their sole Asian ally, at the same time feels threatened that it may be abandoned by such a giant power," Sejong Institute`s Lee said.

"The relationship, although close, isn`t too comforting for North Korea. They need to follow along but always feel on the edge as they never know what to expect." While Korea-China relations continue to hold open hopes of even more growth in the future, an aberration of the past is haunting the bilateral ties and putting at stake all that has been achieved in the last dozen years.

A row erupted between Seoul and Beijing in April when the Chinese foreign ministry removed a description of the ancient Korean kingdom of Goguryeo (37BC-AD 668) from the introduction of Korean history on its official Web Site.

But what incensed Koreans even more was when Beijing, after disregarding Seoul`s adamant requests for the missing portion to be restored, deleted the entire section of Korean history up until the establishment of the South Korean government in 1948.

This drew protests from the South Korean government but Chinese academia now refer to Korea`s age-old kingdom as part of China in their so-called Northeast Project.

While everyone expected the new world of interchange between the neighbors, no one foresaw a historic distortion possibly hindering the future of the relationship.

Many experts here believe China, now securing for itself a major place in the world community, wants to return to being the "middle kingdom" it once was by spreading out and claiming surrounding regions.

For China, being locked in a dispute over historic sovereignty is not new. Bordering 14 nations, Beijing has long been in a tug-of-war with one or more of its neighbors over either land or history, experts note.

They say that Beijing`s claim to Korea`s ancient Goguryeo is similar to its approach toward Southeast Asia and other neighbors. As it enlarges its political and economic influence in the region through multilateral forums, it will make it increasingly difficult for Washington to enlist regional support against China.

In the longer run, China has a grander ambition: to lead an East Asian community.

"China makes it sound like it is pursuing integration for Asia`s common good, whereas its real objective is to establish China`s pre-eminence," professor Kim Taeho of Hallim University`s Graduate School of International Studies.

"We pursue beneficial cooperation with all countries that are willing to cooperate with us. But that does not mean that we can always accommodate the views or positions of other countries. When our vital interests are at stake, especially when it hits the core of our identity and history, we must stand our ground," Kim said.

With China`s distortion of Korean history, the high popularity it enjoyed in an April survey among lawmakers here seems to have hit rock bottom.

Results of a survey in the past few weeks by The Korea Herald, which drew responses from 237 of the 299 members of the National Assembly, showed China far behind the United States as Korea`s top priority in diplomatic as well as economic issues.

Only 14 respondents listed China as No. 1, a major contrast to studies from earlier this year. Nearly 80 percent, or 195 lawmakers, chose the United States.

"This will not be the last time that our relations with an important ally China will be strained. China may bring on different fights along the way," Kim said.

"The core of the issue of historic distortion cannot be resolved. If China dares to push the issue all the way by printing distorted history in its textbooks, that will be the final blow." Stressing that China cannot win the fight when push comes to shove, Kim said Korea will also lose and "it can never be a win-win situation." "If Beijing does decide to take their claims to Goguryeo to the limit, that will bring about disastrous and perhaps unmendable results in bilateral relations," he said.

"Beijing will try to secure its power in the region by forging one big East Asia, including Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia with China at the center. It will be like the old middle kingdom all over again, with an updated version of tributary states providing China with easy access to their markets and materials."

By Choi Soung-ah

(Korea Herald 2004-8-24)