[Viewpoint] Four steps toward better relations

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[Viewpoint] Four steps toward better relations

South Korea and China celebrated the 20th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties on Friday. Bilateral relations have expanded enormously in the interim, but remain lacking in substance as exchanges and cooperation have mostly been led by economic considerations.

On the diplomatic and security front, the two sides make an odd couple, each bound by fidelity to their decades-old partners of the United States and North Korea. Beijing has not been shy in complaining about the current Lee Myung-bak administration for reinforcing ties with Washington. Seoul’s centralized foreign policy has also left little room for private-sector diplomatic efforts. With the momentum of the 20th anniversary of ties, however, it is time to reinvent our partnership with China.

China is our biggest economic partner and also strategically pivotal in assuring peace on the Korean Peninsula for eventual unification. At the same time, it can stand as the biggest stumbling block to unification. We must secure as much maneuvering space as possible between our respective relationships with the U.S. and China in order to profit from these tangled ties. Moreover, we should not limit ourselves in terms of foreign policy, and especially not in a way that Washington can use as leverage against China. Too much engagement with Beijing would also bode ill for Korea.

For China, the next decade will be a huge challenge in determining whether it can safely position itself as a global superpower. We should brace ourselves for a new global order, where the U.S. and China share equal dominance on the global stage, as well as in the Asia-Pacific region. We must take the initiative in creating a multilateral order by moving beyond our defining relationships with the two global powers.

North Korea, which has overseen the transition to a third generation of leadership, will likely strengthen ties with its sole major ally. Under China’s patronage, Pyongyang may pursue a policy of opening that will bring little risk to the regime. We need to accommodate North Korea’s changes in our future relations with China.

To make headway in bilateral ties, we need specific action plans. First of all, the government should establish an agency in China to plan and coordinate policies on the North. A strategic control tower should be set under the presidential office to form up such moves. Research arms scattered under various government offices should also be integrated.

Second, the government needs to reinforce its dialogue and cooperative channels. It should discuss with China the ways of upgrading routine strategic talks from the current foreign ministerial level. The president’s chief secretaries on foreign affairs also require regular contact channels with their counterparts in Beijing.

The South Korea-China-Japan tripartite secretarial office, now filled by officials of vice-ministerial and director-general levels, should also be elevated to ministerial and vice-ministerial levels. Korea’s political parties also need to establish formal or informal communication routes with senior members of the Chinese Communist Party’s politburo.

Third, nongovernmental diplomacy needs to be tightened up. We need diplomacy, not from the mouth of a government spokesman, but from private cultural authorities directly targeting the Chinese people. Instead of depending on cultural attaches and government-run centers, artists, performers, entertainers and civilians should be able to more easily approach and reach out to Chinese consumers of cultural content.

Last but not the least, we need to foster and train experts on China while maximizing the resources we have in terms of Chinese student here. We should send at least 1,000 people to China to study and become experts in various fields every year. The sponsorship would cost the government about 20 billion won ($17.6 million), but it would be worth the value considering the future returns. We should also offer more opportunities to Chinese students here so that they can be experts on South Korea when they return home. The coming years will be filled with challenges and opportunities in bilateral ties, but these must be capitalized on as part of our vision for unification.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

* The author is a professor at Dong-A University and chairman of J-China Forum.

by Chung Chong-wook
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