Toward a better 30 years

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Toward a better 30 years

Park Myung-lim

The author is a politics professor of Yonsei University.

South Korea and China are celebrating the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Given the staggering progress on the economic, trade, education and exchange fronts, their normalized ties have had enormous ramifications on not just the two countries but also on East Asia and the global order. The bilateral relationship has become a pillar for the Korean Peninsula, East Asia and global peace.

The normalization of ties was a turning point for the two countries, which had fought on opposite sides in the Korean War. It led to prosperity for both sides, enhanced exchanges between the two, and security of East Asia and the Korean Peninsula.

The leadership of South Korea and China could not have achieved such a landmark normalization without strong will when considering the alliance between South Korea and the United States, blood ties between China and North Korea, and South Korea’s close relationship with Taiwan. The government of President Roh Tae-woo had a huge accomplishment on the diplomatic front by enhancing the traditional alliance with the U.S. while at the same time forming new ties with the socialist bloc, hammering out the Inter-Korean Basic Agreement, and establishing diplomatic ties with both China and the Soviet Union. His government strengthened the traditional alliance and ended hostility with past enemy states, not to mention setting grounds for a new inter-Korean relationship on the principle of denuclearization and peace.

Fresh out of the underdeveloped category and eager to rebuild, China needed to normalize ties with South Korea, which was rising as one of the most dynamic economies in Asia.

Bilateral ties have hit a snag after making strides over the last 30 years. The change does not just involve the two countries, but also stems from the perspective on China by neighboring countries and the global community. Call it the Chinese paradox. Since China became a factory to the world and a superpower, negative views of the country have increased, including in South Korea. Though China’s influence grows, it is losing approval in surveys on trust, likeability, mutual awareness and its future role.

All the international polls show similar patterns. China has gone all-out to build wealth, power and glory, but it has reached a point where it must show heart to win over the global community. It must earn affection from its close neighbor South Korea to win over the broader international community.

The South Korea-China relationship stands on two grounds: the Korean War and normalization of ties. When normalizing ties, South Korea did not hold China accountable for helping trigger the war, participating in it and reaching the armistice. China must not neglect the benevolence of South Koreans. While still defining the Korean War as a civil war, China does not repent or apologize for interfering or directly taking part in an internal war of the Koreans despite its violation of international laws. It has been entirely self-contradictory. The South Korea-U.S. alliance China hates is in fact a by-product of the Korean War in which China played a strong part. Beijing should have made historical atonement before complaining about the enhanced alliance between Seoul and Washington.

China has become gigantic on the international stage in terms of economic, military and technology advances. Yet in values, system and rules, it is backtracking to the sino-centric feudal period. Such regression was strongly rejected by Chinese revolutionaries like Lu Xun and Mao Zedong. Historically, disproportional states with narrow- and small-mindedness despite their colossal size could not last. China must respect universal values and rules to engage better with neighbors and the rest of the world.

South Korea must uphold the daring and engaging spirit of the Roh Tae-woo period. On foreign affairs, rival parties must overcome ideological differences and show bipartisanship based on a social consensus. Roh was eager to communicate with the opposition. Taking initiative on the alliance with the U.S., denuclearization, and other North Koreans issues also will help improve ties with China.

South Korea should not act superior for being a democracy and a human rights- and law-respecting country. China must not act overbearing because of its sheer size, population, military and economic scale. China must reflect on the history of the fall of imperialistic dynasties after their oppressive and aggressive campaigns against neighbors. Peace and security must be respected for all countries. 
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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