[Viewpoint] Meeting of minds in Shanghai?

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[Viewpoint] Meeting of minds in Shanghai?

President Lee Myung-bak will meet with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao during his two-day visit to Shanghai from Friday on the sidelines of the opening of the 2010 World Expo.

The Shanghai Expo is China’s ambitious attempt to impress the world with its global clout and economic prosperity, close on the heels of the highly successful 2008 Beijing Olympics.

President Hu visited Seoul on Aug. 24, 2008, after the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games, still freshly exhilarated from the hosting of that historical event.

President Lee is returning the visit in a symbolic assertion of strategic partnership between the two countries, and once again timed to coincide with a monumental Chinese achievement.

The normalization of diplomatic ties between the two countries in August 1992 heralded the end of the Cold War era in East Asia.

China shifted from a two-track policy to engage both Koreas as its allies. In transforming to a market economy, China imported South Korea’s technology, capital, and know-how on modernization.

In turn, Korea capitalized on China’s vast market and cheap labor to pull itself out of the 1997 economic crisis.

Now China is Korea’s largest trading partner, and Korea is China’s third largest. Koreans make up the largest number of foreigners entering China and flights between the two countries now total 837 a week, outnumbering China-Japan flights.

Among the 70 million visitors expected to attend Shanghai’s Expo, foreign visitors will number around five million, and Koreans are likely to be the biggest group. China will not want to risk or undermine such mutually beneficial relations.

North Korea and its leader Kim Jong-il are the largest source of that risk. In March, local and foreign media speculated that Kim Jong-il was going to visit China after the Communist Party convention in late March and before the North’s on April 9. The presidential office also hinted at the possibility. But the visit did not take place.

The sinking of the Cheonan naval corvette from an unexplained explosion near the disputed sea border is a plausible reason for the cancellation of the visit. China probably suspected North Korea’s involvement in the sinking after hearing the news on March 26.

No one knows North Korea better than China. Chinese leaders could not have risked inviting and meeting Kim in Beijing under such circumstances. They probably called off the meeting to avoid controversy ahead of the opening of the fair in Shanghai.

Leaders of South Korea and China are meeting amid unprecedented tension on the peninsula, with many suspecting North Korea as the culprit behind the explosion that halved a 1,200-ton naval patrol ship.

The two leaders are likely to coordinate measures to address the Cheonan disaster as well as future North Korean relations, including resumption of the six-party disarmament talks.

Although the ongoing investigation has not yet produced material evidence, South Korea can make a case with circumstantial evidence and make China see the gravity of the latest provocation in hopes of steering China’s policy on North Korea in a different direction.

The Cheonan crisis could shed new light on China’s perspective of the future of the Korean Peninsula. China must realize that only South Korea can take the initiative and burden of unifying the land.

It should also support a unification goal that can reconnect the peninsula with the mainland and start a renaissance in Northeast Asia. China must agree that there are more benefits than losses from a unified country on the Korean Peninsula, benefits it can share. The two leaders don’t have enough time to go over all these issues during the meeting, but they can at least open the door to serious discussion.

China no longer needs to consider North Korea as leverage to offset U.S. military influence. The U.S., engrossed in military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, cannot build up its forces on the Korean Peninsula.

Washington and Beijing have been expanding mutual understanding through senior-level strategic and economic talks since 2005. It is time that China sees the South Korea-U.S. goal for the Korean Peninsula in a positive and favorable light.

In August 2008, President Hu agreed on a strategic alliance with South Korea. As strategic partner, China must join discussions on ways to pursue common regional prosperity, peace, security and unification. Our allies must share our stance on the Cheonan crisis.

During the summit following the Beijing Olympics, President Lee requested that his Chinese counterpart refuse North Korea’s demand that North Korean defectors be returned to their home country. We expect President Lee to display similar boldness at the Shanghai summit.

*The writer is head of the 21st Century National Development Institute and former deputy unification minister.Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Kim Suk-woo
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