Xi Jinping’s adroit pursuit of two Koreas

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Xi Jinping’s adroit pursuit of two Koreas

Chinese leader Xi Jinping met South Korean President Park Geun-hye last week. His visit is unprecedented for two reasons: First, it is his inaugural visit to South Korea since he was elected as president in 2013 and second, it marks the first occasion where a Chinese leader chose to visit South Korea before North Korea in his state visits. While this signals a growing strategic relationship that China has with South Korea, as well as its vexation with North Korea’s confrontational posture, it does not yet indicate the dissolution of the Sino-North Korean strategic alliance. Conversely, Xi’s visit to South Korea demonstrates an adroit Chinese pursuit of two Koreas that would effectively enhance its vantage point in negotiations on the Korean Peninsula.

Although there remains a degree of mistrust between South Korea and China pertaining to the latter’s burgeoning economic growth, increasing unilateralism and military expansion, bilateral relations in economic issues and public diplomacy have intensified considerably after the election of new leaders on both sides. In August 2012, both states commemorated the twentieth anniversary of normalized diplomatic relations. China is now South Korea’s biggest trading partner and South Korea is China’s third largest.

On the other hand, China has yet to desert its longtime ally and neighbor, North Korea. For the most part, there is a gradual change in China’s foreign policy toward North Korea, which strengthens the Sino-North Korean alliance in a slightly different way compared to the past. A meaningful evaluation of China’s evolving foreign policy toward its neighbor is, however, still premature considering that the Xi administration is only a year old. What we know though is that there are newly-elected officials in the Politburo Standing Committee and the Politburo that have had substantial exposure to North Korea. Zhang Dejiang, for instance, obtained a degree from the Kim Il Sung University and spent a major part of his political career in Jilin province, which borders North Korea. Sun Zhengcai, on the other hand, facilitated bilateral trade in the Hwanggumpyong and Wihwa Island economic zones. The election of and projects undertaken by these officials show that North Korea still occupies a key priority in Chinese foreign policy. Notwithstanding support for international sanctions on North Korea, China has been pushing for deeper bilateral economic relations. China’s recent investments in transport infrastructure along the shared border to boost trade and tourism are a case in point.

North and South Korea are strategic to Chinese interests in the region and the world. Therefore, an adroit and concurrent pursuit of both Koreas is crucial. Notwithstanding China’s public diplomacy rhetoric and purported frustrations with North Korea’s nuclear programs, its political and economic relations with both sides are, in reality, being strengthened. The question is, however, whose interests will eventually be served? Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul last week would be a good opportunity to examine the trajectory of this three-sided relationship between China, North and South Korea and to see if China’s pursuit of two Koreas would ensue in genuine peace and security of the Korean Peninsula or the amassing of benefits for the Chinese alone.

BY Hei Mun Pang, A master’s student at the Graduate School of International Studies, Korea University
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