Diplomatic challenges for the next thirty years
The author is a professor of Chinese studies at the Graduate School of International Area Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
In the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations being established between South Korea and China, President Xi Jinping’s third term is expected to begin this fall. The time has come for both sides to prepare for another 30 years of co-prosperity.
The first encounter in modern times of the two neighbors took place in the 1950-53 Korean War in which China appeared as an enemy. But putting their four-decade-old animosities behind on August 24, 1992, the two countries normalized relations with the goal of achieving peace on the peninsula and economic prosperity.
But there was a sharp gap between the two over many issues. While China approached Korean Peninsula issues as part of its big country diplomacy, South Korea wanted to use China’s traditional influence on North Korea and take advantage of its vast domestic market. In the early stages of Seoul-Beijing relations, both sides enjoyed the spirit of “seeking the same while existing differently,” as the old Chinese saying goes. They wanted to pluck low-lying-fruits by expanding exchanges after putting aside sensitive and thorny security issues.
But it was not so easy due to fundamental differences in ideologies and systems. Bilateral relations started with the North Korea factor, a difficult issue for both sides. More specifically, they had to maintain a basically unbalanced relationship as Seoul had no effective means to control the special ties between Beijing and Pyongyang.
As a result, except for a brief honeymoon period after the normalization of the relationship, they had conflict over the North Korean nuclear weapons programs, in particular. Starting with disputes over China’s ban on garlic exports in 2000, the friction extended to China’s Northeast Project aimed at incorporating the Goguryeo Dynasty (36 BC to 668 AD) into its own history.
Above all, China’s embrace of North Korea at the time of the Cheonan sinking and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 explicitly showed the limits of Seoul-Beijing relations. Friction over the deployment of the Thaad missile defense system still casts a shadow over relations. The recent cultural conflict over kimchi and hanbok makes us wonder about the real intentions of China.
The trajectory showed “minimal progress” in relations without any substantial improvement in peace and security of the peninsula and the denuclearization of North Korea. Instead, Pyongyang advanced its nuclear weapons technology to the impairment of its relations with Uncle Sam.
Basically, diplomacy is a highly calculated give-and-take to maximize a stakeholder’s national interests through negotiations. Such a swap cannot be possible with wishful thinking alone. That makes us wonder what China means to us today.
The liberal Moon Jae-in administration lost its leadership in North Korean nuclear issues partly due to the strategic ambiguity it adhered to. That attitude was not welcome by China nor America.
President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol intends to take a new path in diplomacy. After declaring President Moon’s “Korean Peninsula Peace Process” dead in the water, he wants to restore the decades-old South Korea-U.S. alliance, which has been damaged during Moon’s reign, and reinforce the spirit of reciprocity with China.
China is concerned about Yoon’s administration because it may not expect China to play a role in resolving the nuclear threats from North Korea. Beijing worries about the possibility that a comprehensive restoration of Seoul-Washington ties will help solidify trilateral relations among Seoul, Washington and Tokyo and isolate China from U.S.-led supply chains.
To deal with North Korean nuclear threats, South Korea needs to strengthen the alliance. The new administration must also show a clear reaction to China if it threatens the identity and survival of South Korea. Seoul must not repeat the past mistake of keeping silent in consideration of China’s economic weight and influence on North Korea. But the incoming Yoon administration does not have to make China an enemy. Proud diplomacy is desirable. But the new government must be careful not to escalate a conflict with China.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.