Three lessons from the past thirty years

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Three lessons from the past thirty years

The author is the head of the China Institute of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Aug. 24 marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Korea and China — and the 30th anniversary of severing ties with Taiwan. Cho Hee-yong, former ambassador to Canada who worked as the first secretary in Taiwan at the time, published a book titled “Reflecting Severing ties with Taiwan” in March. He collected and recorded related materials from Korea, China and Taiwan in addition to his personal experiences. The book gives three lessons to the Korean foreign policy.

First, Korea often loses fights for time. A negotiation should be pushed and pulled slowly, but Korea often gets swept up in the other side’s pace while trying to achieve something within the given time. When the Korean delegation was negotiating for diplomatic ties with China 30 years ago, two things were important: swift establishment of ties and president Roh Tae-woo’s visit to China. But the year 1992 was practically the last year of Roh’s term.

Korea was pressed for time, but China insisted no further dialogue would happen without Korea acknowledging the One China policy. In the end, Korea accommodated most of China’s demands but neglected to care for Taiwan — the first country Korea established diplomatic relations since the founding of the Republic of Korea. Taiwan criticized Korea for “forgetting grace and abandoning loyalty.” The lesson to learn here is that it is better not to set a deadline when negotiating with China.

The second lesson is that the Roh administration gave China the perception that if they push Korea, Korea will surrender. In the first official negotiation process with Korea for diplomatic ties, China experienced Korea’s basic stance and attitude toward China in a short period of time and was able to set up its own approach on how to deal with Korea.

Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen recalled that he could read Korea’s last cards after the second preliminary meeting. Whenever a dispute arises with China, such as the garlic scandal or the Thaad dispute, China displays a tough attitude. I cannot shake off the suspicion that China has acquired a perception from the negotiation that if they push Korea, Korea will be pushed.

Third, Korean diplomacy’s chronic problem is its unique obsession over short-term accomplishments. Cho said that such short-term political calculations ultimately undermine the national interests and impair the prestige of Korea. While the 30th anniversary with China should be celebrated, Korea must reflect on the wounds of severing ties with Taiwan if it does not want to repeat the same mistake in the future.
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