The good old days
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
China looms large over South Korea. The size of its economy was similar to that of South Korea at the time of normalization of diplomatic ties. It is eight times bigger now. China is responsible for a quarter of our trade. Korea’s reliance on China has made Beijing high-handed towards Seoul. A presidential envoy from Seoul was seated next to the mere administrator of Hong Kong in a state ceremony in Beijing. There were days when China regarded South Korea as an awe-inspiring nation. It envied South Korea’s staggering economic progress when it was a socialist laggard.
China mimicked the state-led industrialization of strongman Park Chung Hee, the orchestrator of the Miracle on the Han River. Deng Xiaoping recognized Park’s achievements and embarked on opening and reform in 1978. China reached out to South Korea to normalize diplomatic ties in 1992 although it had backed North Korea in the Korean War. Touring industrial sites became a must for Chinese politicians. President Xi Jinping also frequently visited South Korea when he was a provincial leader.
At the time, Chinese government officials looked around automaking and steelmaking sites. They were wowed at the chip facilities of Samsung Electronics, which boasted the most sophisticated technology. The Chinese leadership focused on economic development and promoted foreign capital investment. As a result, Korean makers of automobiles and chips rushed to China.
There was a reversal of fortunes with the Asian financial crisis in 1997 that pushed South Korea to near default. Of 30 top companies, 16 went under and five commercial banks shut down, producing 2 million unemployed. China began to see South Korea in a new light. It realized it could also be vulnerable if it followed in the footsteps of South Korea too closely. China became conscious of the so-called South Korean illness.
China began looking down on South Korea. When Seoul slapped curbs on garlic imports to protect its farmers, Beijing showed its clout through retaliatory tariffs on Korean shipments of cellular phones and polyethylene. Seoul immediately surrendered. Yet it failed to learn a lesson. Many had warned that the days when Korean tourists enjoyed cheap foot massages in China would soon be over.
The tiger began to rise with the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou. When Xiaomi debuted, Koreans ridiculed it. Koreans were too intoxicated by their brief victory over China in the span of 5,000 years to see its ascension. Today, Korea is ahead of China merely in semiconductors and cosmetics. Even those minor triumphs may not last long.
Beijing came to really look down on Seoul under former President Park Geun-hye. Even her liberal predecessor Roh Moo-hyun respected the traditional alliance with the United States. But Park attended the military parade at the Tiananmen Square to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2015 despite a protest from Washington. Her move made Beijing view Seoul as an easy target. Its blatant attack on South Korea for its deployment of a U.S. antimissile system against North Korean threats was not coincidental. President Moon Jae-in was disgraced when he made a state visit to China in 2017. He was not even invited to a state dinner. Yet he sucked it up with more humility than necessary by calling Korea a “small nation whereas China was the crux of a high mountain.” To please Beijing, Moon vowed not to add another Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) missile defense system, join any U.S.-led missile defense system or a trilateral alliance with the United States and Japan.
China may ratchet up its bullying ways. Now that it has become powerful enough to take on Uncle Sam, it probably regards South Korea as being completely out of its league. Korea inevitably would have to reduce its reliance on China and widen the gap in the areas where it still has a competitive edge. The government must strengthen the alliance with Washington. China’s pride is at its peak this year as it celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state. Korea must reassess its survival strategy in this new global order.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 23, Page 34