China, mon amour“There are 843 weekly flights between South Korea and China, and it must be a Guinness world record,” said Li Zhaoxing, president of the China Public Diplomacy Association during his meeting with me on July 31 in Beijing. It was the cheerful rhetoric of a veteran diplomat - former ambassador to the United States and foreign minister - describing a golden time in the relationship between the two countries.
Following President Park Geun-hye’s summit in China in June, the two countries expanded their strategic cooperative partnership into the military arena. The top commanders of the two countries’ militaries agreed to establish a hotline. Korea’s relationship with the United States also saw progress at exactly the same time. With Park’s visit to the United States in May, the 60-year-old alliance between the two countries was upgraded into a global partnership from a comprehensive strategic partnership.
Although the Korea-U.S. and Korea-China relationships seem to be going well on the surface, the actual situations are a little different if you look deeper. We must remember that even a small conflict in national interests can cause serious damage to the weaker country. That has been proven in history.
China, turning aside from its blood ally North Korea, formed a diplomatic relationship with South Korea on Aug. 24, 1992. Kim Il Sung, the North Korean leader, made a desperate request to China to coordinate its diplomatic ties with the South in accordance with the pace of North Korea-U.S. diplomatic relations. That didn’t happen.
At his Mount Myohyang vacation home, Kim received a delegation led by then-Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen and was informed about Beijing’s decision to tie the diplomatic knot with Seoul. “We will walk our independent path,” Kim told the Chinese delegation. Concluding that a nuclear arsenal was the only thing it could truly count on, the North walked away from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in March of the next year. The starting point of the persistent nuclear crisis that the South and China continue to struggle with was actually the foundation for the two countries’ establishing diplomatic relations.
How did the North Korean leadership feel while watching the South Korean Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff visiting the North Sea Fleet in Qingdao aboard a military plane of China? A Chinese diplomat in Beijing flatly said that despite the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, China won’t go to war for the North and the Chinese people wouldn’t approve such a move.
It’s easy to guess China’s true intention of cozying up to the South. It wants to block Washington’s so-called pivot to Asia - aimed squarely at Beijing - by improving ties with a major ally of America. Of course, South Korea is the third largest trade partner of China and that is also an important reason.
If the two superpowers, the U.S. and China, actually consider South Korea an ally or a partner, they must work hard to shut down the North’s nuclear arms programs. While they say they are, they’re actually not. The United States says China has the make-or-break power because it provides North Korea with food and oil. Chinese diplomats flatly reject that argument. They say the United States has the key to this lock but that it has no intention of using it.
China believes the United States is enjoying the North playing the role of troublemaker in Northeast Asia because it allows the trilateral alliance of the United States, South Korea and Japan to surround China. “Will the United States actually accept it if the North gives up its nuclear programs?” a Chinese diplomat asked.
We can’t just wait for the two superpowers to make up their minds. We must demand the U.S. support the conciliatory efforts between the two Koreas because stopping North Korean aggression is the key point of the South Korea-U.S. alliance. As of now, the structure of the alliance is focused on containing China and isolating the North, and we must propose to transform it into a more flexible structure for the post-cold war era.
To this end, we should also be more active to save the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang tourism projects. We also need China to play a more active role instead of just passing the buck to the United States.
History has taught us the lesson that weak countries are often sacrificed in negotiations among strong countries. The 1905 Taft-Katsura Secret Agreement, which allowed Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula in return for U.S. occupation of the Philippines, and the Acheson line declaration in 1950, which triggered the 1950-53 Korean War, are examples of the United States abandoning the South.
During President Park’s visit to China, Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed her warmly and arranged for her to stay at building No. 18 of the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse. That precise building was where Kim Il Sung stayed during his visit to China in 1991 at the invitation of Chinese President Deng Xiaoping. Only one year later, China caught the North off guard and established diplomatic relations with South Korea. That’s the cruel reality of diplomacy. We must remember there is no guarantee that the South won’t tumble into such a miserable position with only the faint memory of its old tryst with China.
*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Ha-kyung