[Viewpoint] China’s kin are closer than partners“We are disappointed that Beijing has allowed Kim Jong-il to visit China.”
“Is it true that Korea and China maintain a strategic partnership?”
South Koreans regret that China has welcomed Kim Jong-il, the chairman of the North Korean National Defense Commission. Some are quite angry. South Korea has been mourning for weeks since the tragic Cheonan incident.
Many of us are furious at Beijing for its warm reception of the very person who is likely responsible for the tragedy, while there has not been an official announcement.
South Koreans have a reason to be angry. First of all, many of us feel betrayed because the South Korea-China relationship has been constantly improving. Since the two countries began a diplomatic relationship in 1992, the bond has continuously evolved.
In 1994, the relationship was defined as a friendly partnership, but was elevated to a cooperative partnership in 1998. In 2003, Seoul and Beijing became extensive cooperative partners, and the tie evolved into a strategic partnership in 2008. It cannot get any more solid than that.
After spending so many years building a true partnership, many people believe China’s overture to Kim is disappointing - especially in light of President Lee Myung-bak’s two-day visit to Shanghai on April 30, despite the urgent situation on the Korean Peninsula. Beijing may be underrating the sincerity of the high regard the South Korean leader has shown.
We all know that President Lee spared the time in order to highlight the Shanghai Expo, an event through which Beijing hopes to rise in the world. However, China did not even mention to President Lee Kim Jong-il’s plan to visit China.
What was the point of having a South Korea-China summit? It is only natural that South Koreans are denouncing China.
Lately, President Lee has shown his good faith by personally handling the South Korea-China free trade agreement, a deal Beijing desperately wants.
Lee further showed his regard by appointing his close aide and former Blue House Chief of Staff Yu Woo-ik as the ambassador to China at the end of last year.
This makes China’s attitude even more appalling. Some Koreans are saying that China’s brain has not kept pace with its beefed-up brawn.
What went wrong?
We can’t afford to fantasize about the true nature of our relationship with China, especially when North Korea is involved. When Jiang Zemin returned from his September 2001 visit to North Korea, the Chinese president summed up the trip as, “I just visited a relative.”
His remark concisely illustrates the love-hate relationship between North Korea and China. Sometimes they get along, and sometimes they detest each other, but all in all, they love each other as family.
China might not be completely fond of North Korea, which gets into trouble too often and plays dangerous nuclear tricks. Beijing rebukes and scolds Pyongyang, but both strongly believe that their tie cannot be broken. The “blood alliance” from the Korean War is still valid after 60 years.
Therefore, Beijing’s North Korea policy has two tracks. If North Korea gets into trouble, China will reproach and criticize. On the other hand, China will help North Korea as a neighbor and a relative when Pyongyang is struggling.
China has distinguished the nuclear issue from the economic assistance issue. The Cheonan case must be yet a third issue for Beijing.
Even if it turns out that North Korea is responsible for the tragedy, as long as Pyongyang denies any involvement, China will be equivocal and urge both Seoul and Pyongyang not to elevate the crisis. That’s as much as Beijing will do.
Expecting any more from Beijing is a vain exercise. That’s the reality of the South Korea-China relationship as the countries mark the 18th anniversary of diplomatic relations on Aug. 24.
After decades of cease-fire, we became oblivious to the North Korean threat for just a moment. We should learn from the result that we must never forget - even during our honeymoon phase - just how different Beijing is from Seoul.
We can’t expect much from China, which means there’s not much it can do to disappoint us. Ice does not melt overnight. If we want to ask more from China, we need to invest more time to strengthen our trust.
Jiang Zemin’s visit to the North in 2001 did not go smoothly. Pyongyang and Beijing did not issue a joint statement. However, Jiang said about the visit, “The world has changed so much, and the only thing remaining constant is the friendship between China and North Korea.”
We can’t afford to be anything less than clear-sighted about our relationship with China - especially when it comes to North Korea.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is the director of the JoongAng China Institute.
By You Sang-chul