Turbulent history, entwined future

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Turbulent history, entwined future

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The history of diplomatic relations between Korea and China dates back to ancient dynasties and is a centuries-old passage tangled with several major wars and interspersed with years of peace that spurred economic, political and cultural exchanges between the two nations. But modern diplomatic relations between them started in 1898, when China’s Qing Dynasty sent an official to Seoul as the first modern ambassador to the Empire of Korea (1897-1910). The Korean Empire was established by Korea’s last emperor, Gojong, who also sent an official to Beijing as an ambassador in 1902.

Now, after the tumultuous history of foreign occupations in both countries, wars and an intense ideological standoff that has divided Northeast Asia, 21st-century China is faced with the daunting challenge of engaging in a delicate diplomatic dance in order to maintain close relations with the now-divided Korean Peninsula.

South Korea, a longtime ally of the United States, recognizes the importance of closer relations with China as not only the world’s next superpower but also the closet ally of North Korea. And with the reunification of the two Koreas increasingly considered inevitable, China is expected to play a far bigger role in the landscape of inter-Korea politics down the road.

The turbulent history of diplomatic ties between South Korea and China in modern times reflects the equally eventful history of each country. The Qing Dynasty’s ambassador to the Korean Empire left the country in August 1910 when Korea was occupied by the Japanese, and relations between the two countries would not begin again for another 80 years. In the interim, Korea went through the 1910-45 Japanese occupation, separation of the two Koreas, the 1950-53 Korean War and South Korea’s rapid economic ascent under the military regimes from the 1960s to the 1980s. China, which officially became a communist country in 1949, sided with the northern part of the newly divided Korea, and sent in more than 400,000 troops to aid the North during the Korean War. Since then, it has maintained close economic and political ties with Pyongyang.

But things started to change in the 1970s. During that time, South Korea achieved a stellar period of growth that earned it the nickname “the Miracle on the Han River” while the North, which had a far bigger economy than the South in the 1950s and 60s, started to see its economy stagnate. China, no exception in this growing economic malaise under its socialist economic system, made a bold move in 1978 to launch the so-called Open Door Policy, diversifying its trading partners beyond the realm of communist countries and opening its doors to foreign businesses that wanted access to the country. With its economy embracing capitalism and the Cold War coming to an end, China finally opened official diplomatic relations with South Korea in August 1992, 82 years after the Qing Dynasty’s ambassador left the Korean Peninsula and 43 years after it had forged relations with North Korea in 1949.

Since then, relations between Seoul and Beijing have expanded from a focus on trade to include political, cultural and wider economic exchanges. China’s full support for Seoul’s Sunshine Policy toward Pyongyang in the late 1990s and early 2000s further helped reinforce relations between the two countries. And the diversification of exchanges between the two countries also points to a need for greater diplomatic coordination between Seoul and Beijing. For instance, trade between the two countries amounted to $141 billion as of last year, incomparable with the $1.7 billion in trade between China and North Korea last year.

South Korea is also the largest foreign investor in China and its investment there amounted to $2.6 billion as of last year.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s state visit to Beijing in May 2008 underscored the two countries’ mutual recognition of their importance. During Lee’s first visit to China as president, he and his Chinese counterpart agreed to enhance their bilateral relationship by changing the status of their partnership from a “comprehensive and cooperative partnership” to a “strategic and cooperative partnership,” making Korea the third country to achieve this status with China after Russia and India. That means that the two countries, not seeking a military alliance just yet, can now cooperate in almost any field including diplomacy, security, the economy, culture and global issues.

Meanwhile, China’s role and influence on the Korean Peninsula is expected to become even more significant in the future. With its border with North Korea becoming increasingly porous, any political and economic turbulence within the North is likely to trigger a massive exodus. That is why Beijing officials are actively engaged in ensuring the “peace and stability” of the Korean Peninsula.

With its enormous political and economic leverage over the communist North, and as a member of the six-party talks aimed at denuclearizing the country, China is now an indispensable player in mitigating any inter-Korean political tension, including the recent diplomatic standoff over the sinking of the Cheonan warship.


By Jung Ha-won [hawon@joongang.co.kr]
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