We can choose both the U.S. and China

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We can choose both the U.S. and China

Chang Se-jeong

The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.

South Korea and China normalized diplomatic relations on Aug. 24, 1992, and the 30th anniversary of the event is being celebrated this year. The two countries have developed significantly over the past three decades. South Korea is an advanced economy. China is chasing the United States economically. The decision made 30 years ago to formally recognize each other was a pragmatic one. Relations must now be redefined in the context of efforts by the United States to protect the supply of key products and materials.

Was the decision to establish diplomatic ties three decades ago a successful one in strategic terms? In the turbulent global order, what should be South Korea’s diplomacy toward China? To discuss these issues, the JoongAng Ilbo interviewed Kim Ha-jung, 75, former ambassador to China. Kim led the negotiations to establish diplomatic relations. He is the longest serving ambassador to China (from October 2001 to March 2008), a former unification minister and author of 13 books.

Q. Please discuss Korea-China relations over the past three decades.
A. Since the diplomatic relations were established in 1992, Presidents Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung and the third-generation leaders of China — such as President Jiang Zemin and Premiers Li Peng and Zhu Rongji — built trust. Bilateral ties advanced rapidly during the first decade. During the second decade, fourth-generation Chinese leaders like President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao maintained good relations with the Roh Moo-hyun government, which maintained Kim Dae-jung’s engagement policy toward North Korea. But after President Lee Myung-bak took office in 2008, inter-Korean relations worsened.
After North Korea conducted the second nuclear test in 2009, the United Nations adopted a resolution to impose sanctions on the North, and the six-party nuclear talks stopped. As inter-Korean relations were completely severed, China appeared to begin a review to recalibrate South Korea-China relations. In 2013, when the Xi Jinping government started, it presented the “China Dream” as a goal and demanded that the United States establish a new relationship between the superpowers. While the U.S. was lukewarm, the Park Geun-hye administration abruptly decided to allow the U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense [Thaad] missile defense system in July, 2016. Beijing fiercely protested the decision to the degree that it was hard for the South Korean people to understand. Subsequently, public sentiment toward China rapidly worsened in South Korea, and the two countries have maintained a tense relationship since.

What were the calculations of South Korea and China at the time of the negotiation for diplomatic relations?
At the time, the Roh Tae-woo government had less than a year left in its term. So the Blue House rushed to conclude the negotiation as soon as possible. China was also in a hurry. In the early 1992, we thought diplomatic establishment with China would be difficult. So we proposed to establish a liaison office if establishing diplomatic ties was difficult. But China said there was no need for that. It wanted to tie a diplomatic knot right away.
At that time, China was under economic sanctions of the West due to the massacre of the Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989. In 1992, Deng Xiaoping was making his southern tour to resume the implementation of his “Reforms and Opening-up” program. China was to hold the 14th Party Congress in October that year to reelect Jiang Zemin as the general secretary. It was crucial for China to establish diplomatic ties with South Korea as soon as possible to deal a blow to Taiwan and create a breakthrough to escape international isolation.

Was normalizing ties a right choice strategically and pragmatically?
It was the right direction because people-to-people exchanges, trade and economic cooperation skyrocketed after normalizing relations with China, which also helped South Korea overcome the Asian foreign currency crisis. If we had not established diplomatic relations with China, Korean peninsula affairs would have been extremely unstable amid the North Korean nuclear crisis, which began in 1993. Whenever tensions arose between the two Koreas, we asked China to play a constructive role to maintain peace and stability on the peninsula, and China played its role in its own way. Before the diplomatic establishment, we could not contact China directly, so we communicated through the United States, European countries or Japan. But after the diplomatic establishment, we were able to contact and negotiate with China directly. That alone has tremendous meaning.

What was the decisive moment that changed bilateral relations?
After the Park administration allowed the U.S. deployment of the Thaad system in 2016, China reacted extremely emotionally. It was the first time that China showed an emotional reaction to Korea since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992. That was the decisive moment that worsened the Korean people’s perception of China. South Korean people were shocked by and disappointed with China’s attitudes about Thaad and its claim over kimchi. China’s attitude significantly undermined the positive perception that had built up in South Korea.
In an interview conducted at his home, Kim Ha-jung, former ambassador to China, looked back on the 30 years of the diplomatic relations with China and shared his advice for the future of South Korea’s diplomacy. [CHANG SE-JEONG] 

What do you think about the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s decision to normalize the Thaad deployment?
As the Thaad deployment is a security measure for South Korea and the United States to prepare deterrence against North Korean attacks, the government must normalize the operation of the Thaad base in Korea to exercise its sovereignty. You cannot sacrifice your national security just because another country opposes it. At the recent foreign ministerial talks between Seoul and Beijing, China’s response to the issue seemed to have changed a bit. I think the normalization can be pushed forward if Seoul and Washington sufficiently explain the background to Beijing.

Will the people of South Korea and China be able to restore their positive sentiments toward each other?
Most Koreans think they can easily befriend the Chinese. But politically and socially, South Korea and China are completely different countries. While China is a socialist country seeking a Communism path ultimately, Korea is a liberal democracy. Therefore, people’s exchanges will face more challenges in the future. Chinese people younger than 40 are called the “little emperor generation” born after the country adopted a one child policy in 1979. We need to pay special attention to see how they will behave in the international community when they are fueled by nationalism.

China is internationally isolated. Will the Chinese Dream be realized?
Since Deng Xiaoping, China upheld the doctrine of “Keep a low profile and bide your time” in its foreign policy and accomplished rapid economic growth. After Xi took power in 2013 and promoted the China Dream, the West started to become alerted. In 2020, U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo exposed everything China had quietly pushed forward, dealing a diplomatic blow to China by making public its intentions and plans. China was labeled as the NATO’s new threat in its new Strategic Concept announced in June. Over the past decades, China invested heavily to build relations with the West, but they are damaged now. Restoring relations is a crucial task for Beijing. So, it will be hard for China to concentrate all efforts on a hegemony contest against the U.S.

Should South Korea choose the alliance of security and shared values or the alliance of economy and interests?
Many people say South Korea must choose between America and China, but I do not agree. We don’t have to choose. Everybody has friends. We should strengthen the alliance with the U.S., with which we share the values of liberal democracy, while maintaining a close friendship with China, a close neighbor. China is suffering many difficulties in the international community, and no country can relay its message and support better than South Korea. South Korea must seriously think about a way to utilize the changes in the international community to advance South Korea-China relations. There is no need for Seoul to contemplate too deeply about participating in the “Chip 4” alliance, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and the Quad. Korea must actively participate in multilateral talks. If something is beneficial for national interest in the long term, it must do it even if it would bring about some damage during the process.

What is your advice to the Yoon administration on foreign strategy?
To resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, it must improve relations with China and reinforce cooperation among South Korea, Japan and the U.S. The trilateral cooperation has an important role in particular to check the strained relations between South Korea and Japan. In diplomacy, the president is most important. When the president is humble, wise and insightful, he can be respected by other countries and secure national interest. Career diplomats should be utilized, but the president must hire multifaceted employees beyond school, hometown and blood ties. If the president can do this, South Korea can become a G8 country.

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