Building trust with Beijing

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Building trust with Beijing

The flight distance between Seoul and Beijing is 940 kilometers, or 584 miles. The distance between Beijing and Shanghai is 1,088 kilometers. It is sometimes shorter to travel from Seoul to China than within the mainland. South Korea and China are that close. There is a saying that a rooster’s cries from Baengnyeong, an island west of Korea on the Yellow Sea, can reach the peak of Mount Cheng in Rongcheng, Shandong Province. In fact, the two places are just 174 kilometers apart.

The Yellow Sea is a body of water Korea and China share. In her speech at Tsinghua University during a visit to Beijing in June, President Park Geun-hye noted that rivers in China flow from west to east and Korea’s from east to west to converge in the Yellow Sea. The Chinese landscape is higher in the west and low in the east, and Korea is the opposite. Korea is connected to China through a mountain range and rivers in the north and through the sea in the west. Former Liaoning University President Feng Yuchoong has listed four ways Korea and China are close: in history, culture, geography and sentiment.

However, is the sentiment of the two nations actually that close? Their bilateral relationship had been mostly chilly since the two countries normalized ties in 1992 under President Roh Tae-woo. And what about now, in the first year under the China-friendly Park government?

The public opinion research arm of the Asan Institute regularly polls on the sentiment toward other countries. The findings are interesting. Korean sentiment toward China scored 4.45 out of 10 in early January before the new president took office - versus 5.70 toward the United States and 3.31 toward Japan. In a July survey in the aftermath of Park’s visit to China, the rating improved to its highest-ever at 4.92. The index, however, has been dropping since, falling to 4.66 in September and hitting 4.37 this month, worse than before Park took office.

Much has happened between the two countries over the months. Six people were injured in a clash between South Korean coast guardsmen and Chinese fishermen illegally fishing in Korean waters. Fifteen North Korean defectors were arrested by Chinese police in Yunnan Province. Last month, China unilaterally announced a new air defense identification zone, infringing on Korean territory as well as undermining pledges to strengthen a bilateral strategic partnership. The arrival of heavy smog and pollution from China has further darkened Korean sentiment toward its powerful neighbor, which has turned decisively assertive and ambitious for regional predominance. The heavy clouds of smog from China remind us of the warnings made by novelist Bok Koh-ill about the looming danger the Chinese shadow poses for the Korean Peninsula.

In his book “Studying China,” Chung Jae-ho, a Seoul National University professor, listed seven stumbling blocks that stand between South Korea and China. North Korea tops the list as the toughest and most thorny issue between the two. South Korea and China remain poles apart over North Korean affairs, as underlined in a seminar jointly sponsored by Fudan University and the South Korean consulate general in Shanghai earlier this month. South Koreans argued that there should be a clear red line against North Korea’s nuclear provocations as a warning that the country could face severe consequences if it crosses the threshold. In other words, the international community must come to an agreement on punitive guidelines if North Korea dares undertake a fourth nuclear test.

But Chinese scholars merely echoed Beijing’s hands-off, neutral stance it showed in the fall of 2009 after North Korea detonated a nuclear device for the second time. Beijing takes into account North Korea’s other issues as well when addressing its nuclear problem.

While South Korea, the United States and Japan are committed to the single, specific issue of disarming the North of its nuclear weapons, China sees the issue in a broad and comprehensive manner. It believes Pyongyang will not need to cling to nuclear development if it opens up, rebuilds its economy and joins the international community. Instead of persuasion, lecturing and pressure on Pyongyang to open and reform as in the past, Beijing has boosted economic cooperation with the North so that the country can taste and get a first-hand experience of the rewards that market opening and reforms can bring. Trade between North Korea and China surged to $5.9 billion last year, up from $480 million in 2000. The purge and execution of Jang Song-thaek, the powerful uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and former No. 2 man who championed Chinese-style opening, won’t likely disrupt this trend.

There was nothing new in the Chinese representations. Their scholars just cleverly repackaged the government’s policy stance. Local media sometimes quote a Chinese scholar advising Beijing to give up on Pyongyang. But that is just a minority voice. The hearts of South Koreans and Chinese cannot meet for now. In the Asan poll, Koreans named China as the biggest danger to the country after the two Koreas are united. Although the percentage of Koreans who say that about China fell to 47 percent last year from 61 percent in an earlier survey, the distance between South Korea and China remains far. One warmly welcomed visit to China by a South Korean president won’t suddenly bring the two closer. But the two countries are bound as neighbors. They must build trust step by step through actions instead of rhetoric.

*The author is the JoongAng Ilbo’s specialist on China.

by You Sang-chul
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