Looking back on the past 30 years

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Looking back on the past 30 years

Yeh Young-june
The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.

Turning 30 can be scary. It is not just because the youthful days are coming to an end. The rude awakening of the feeling of having achieved little, let alone establishing self-identity, at the turning point of adulthood feeds a sense of anxiety. The milestone age is approaching for South Korea and China to mark their normalization of diplomatic relations thirty years ago. Various polls show South Koreans today dislike China more than Japan and North Korea.

Seven years ago, former president Park Geun-hye met with Chinese President Xi Jinping after attending the flamboyant military parade at Tiananmen Square. She said Seoul and Beijing would soon embark on discussions on the unification of the Korean Peninsula. If unification discussions were truly in the making, she should not have mouthed it. But it was wishful thinking from Seoul’s side, as Xi most likely made the comment as a formality.

South Korean presidents since Roh Tae-woo, who normalized ties with China, were burdened with expectations for Beijing’s role in reuniting the Korean Peninsula. Upon returning from Beijing after normalizing relations with China, Roh proclaimed that Koreans entered the phase of reunifying the divided land. He projected some kind of union of the two Koreas within the 20th century. Memories of former President Moon Jae-in endlessly keeping a low profile to please Beijing throughout his five-year term for his engaging policy towards North Korea are still vivid.

The role of Beijing to denuclearize North Korea and unite the two Koreas remains important. But whether China has really lived up to our expectations over the last 30 years is another issue. The time has come for us to stop wishful thinking and look at China with cool-headedness The first question is whether China would want the unification of the Korean Peninsula or prefer the status quo. If Beijing really desires unification, whether its envisioning of the unification really matches Seoul’s must be looked into. And if China does not want the reunification of the two Koreas, we must find effective ways to cope with it. Our approach to Beijing should be based on such judgments.

In terms of trade and economy, the best years have passed. Except for semiconductors, South Korea no longer beats China in technology and manufacturing. It should not be a surprise that our trade with China has begun to move to deficit from May this year.
Korean Foreign Minister Lee Sang-ock, left, shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen after exchanging a joint communique for the establishment of diplomatic relations in Beijing on August 24, 1992. [JOONGANG PHOTO]

Hyundai Motor Group’s share in the Chinese auto market has sunk to 1 percent. Samsung smartphones were pushed to the peripherals five years ago. Cosmetics that used to be unrivaled also are losing grounds in China. Even without its retaliatory actions, China is no longer an easy market for Korean companies. The longstanding formula — security alliance with the U.S. and economic cooperation with China — may stop working for Korea.

South Korea was right to normalize ties with China 30 years ago. The momentum has helped widen frontiers for Korean products and engage in globalization. Without the Chinese market, South Korea could not have become world’s No. 10 economy in terms of size. But times have changed.

South Korea and China are not the same countries they were 30 years ago. That past perspective cannot build the next 30 years for the two countries. We must seriously ruminate on what China means to Korea and what relationship the two should build on. We may have neglected to tend to such fundamental questions, blinded by our excellent achievements from bilateral trade.
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