[Viewpoint] Turning dispute into trust-building

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[Viewpoint] Turning dispute into trust-building

The case involving China’s arrest and torture of Kim Young-hwan, a South Korean human rights activist, is a simple and clear matter for the South Korean government, which has a duty to protect the basic human rights of its citizens. Beijing needs to accept Seoul’s demand for a fact-finding investigation to verify Kim’s claims and offer an apology, punish those responsible and promise to prevent any recurrence of the incident.

The controversy surrounding the case has grown as China refuses to admit that Kim was tortured. This case has become an important political and diplomatic challenge for the two countries, which happened to celebrate the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year.

Human rights issues are China’s Achilles’ heel and have put Beijing at odds with the international community for a long time. It has brought China face to face with many Western countries, including the United States. The case of Kim Young-hwan is a complex issue as it involves the image of China, the integrity of the Chinese system, China-U.S. relations, North Korea-China relations and South Korea-China relations.

South Korea has also needed to seriously contemplate various angles, including its diplomatic status, human rights in North Korea, inter-Korean relations and its relationship with China. Because Seoul and Beijing both need to take into account various parties whose interests are involved in this matter, they find it difficult to reach a satisfactory compromise.

Coincidently, the United States recently pushed forward an Asia-centric strategy dubbed “Pivot to Asia,” and the United States and China are facing each other in a subtle confrontation in Northeast Asia. And Kim’s case has emerged in this delicate situation. The possibility that it will become more complicated is growing.

But Kim’s case is a challenge that must be resolved. China is seeking to create a new model as a superpower beyond the United States. It has been pushing forward the slogans of “A world of harmony” and “Asia of harmony.”

And it is important for Kim’s case to serve as a critical opportunity to prompt China’s internal reform, including its efforts to improve human rights inside its own country.

South Korea should also use it as an opportunity to find a national consensus on human rights issues in the North, inter-Korean relations, its relationship with China, and the standards and norms to cement its status as a middle power.

It is also particularly important that Kim’s case and other important issues linked to it are not used as tools for political fights to provoke voter emotions ahead of the December presidential elections.

If South Korea and China can resolve this case wisely, they will be able to share a rare experience of finding a solution through negotiations, and their trust will deepen enormously.

If they fail, however, the rupture may run deep due to the structural environment of the ongoing efforts to re-establish a new order in the region. For the two countries to be partners of the same journey, the time has come for them to seriously think about their relationship.

The two countries have achieved more than enough development in their relations to celebrate the 20th anniversary of diplomatic ties. The bilateral annual exchange of six and a half million people is a clear example of the relationship.

And yet, it is also a reality of South Korea-China relations that no systemic safety mechanisms have been established to serve such phenomenal growth. Despite the skyrocketing number of visitors to each country, they still don’t even have a consular agreement.

With more and more of its people traveling overseas recently, China has also become aware of the need to protect its citizens and national security.

Now is the time for the two countries to establish a safety mechanism to prevent conflicts and manage crises with reason, rather than just talking about the indicators of developments in their relationship. The South Korean and Chinese governments must put forth aggressive and active efforts for this to be realized.

And resolving Kim’s case must begin from there. South Korea and China must use all possible channels to create a systemic way to resolve the dispute.

Bilateral relations are now being put to the test to see whether the two countries will move toward increased tensions and conflicts or rather build trust through sharing an important diplomatic experience.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a professor of Chinese studies at Dongduk Women’s University.

by Lee Dong-ryul
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