Keep a cool head about China
Relations between South Korea and China, which have developed remarkably in the last 10 years, including a trade volume of over $110 billion last year, are further developing into an overall cooperative partnership. This is a phrase Korean Ambassador to China Kim Ha-joong often incorporates into his speeches. In particular, he stresses "overall cooperative partnership relations," which were agreed upon between the two countries when President Roh Moo-hyun visited China in 2003.
However, the Korean Embassy in China seems to be having second thoughts about this phrase these days. It questions whether relations between the two countries are actually as good as these words suggests. "I am beginning to suspect whether we have viewed relations with China in too easy and naive a way," said one embassy official.
The atmosphere, in which people once tried to upgrade China as a new "ally" stressing friendship and cooperation, is now changing. The crucial turning point was the secret China visit by Kim Jong-il, chairman of the National Defense Commission of North Korea. Chairman Kim was in China from January 10 to 18, and throughout the whole period of Kim's visit, the South Korean Embassy in Beijing was kept completely in the dark. Ambassador Kim was accompanying the speaker of the National Assembly, Kim Won-ki, who was visiting China when Chairman Kim arrived at an unknown destination in China on the morning of January 10. He had to hurry back to the embassy in the middle of his trip.
This was because Seoul ordered him to confirm whether Chairman Kim was in China or not. There were many signs of Chairman Kim's visit to China, but the embassy had no way of confirming this. The embassy believed a Chinese Foreign Ministry official who said, "Stories of Chairman Kim visiting China are not true."
Because of some pending political issues, including the six-way talks, and the remarkable development of economic relations, South Korea has often painted a rosy picture of South Korea-China relations. The Korean Embassy in China has also played a leading role in creating such an atmosphere, but Chairman Kim's China visit has provided an occasion to reconsider the current status of South Korea-China relations, as to make even the South Korean Embassy in China reflect on relations with China.
We need to think cool-headedly about the six-way talks that always emphasize cooperation between the two countries. Cooperation between South Korea and China in the six-way talks is the result of a coincident dove-tailing of the strategic interests of South Korea - peace and stability in inter-Korean relations - and that of China - regional stability for the rapid economic growth of China.
One embassy official emphasized that "the Chinese position on the North Korean nuclear issue is thoroughly based on utilitarianism." He explained that on other issues, on which the strategic interests of the two countries differ from each other, bilateral cooperation has normally gone through lots of ups and downs. For example, even nowadays it is almost impossible to send North Korean refugees who are discovered by the Chinese security authorities, to South Korea. North Korean refugees who sneak into the embassies of third world countries may receive exile, but those who are caught by Chinese security are usually forced back to North Korea. There is a gap between the South Korean government, which wants North Korean refugees to come to South Korea in light of human rights and freedom, and the position of China, which has a practical need to maintain a cautious relationship with North Korea.
Maintaining a good relationship with China, which is rapidly rising in the international community, is very important for Korea. However, we should not hasten or exaggerate the relationship in a favorable way. China is not yet a country that can share the values of human rights, democracy and freedom with us.
Through their pragmatic management and strategic arrangements, Chinese officials make it appear as if they cooperate with South Korea smoothly, but the Chinese authorities are cool-headed calculators. China also has a very different national identity from us in that they pursue a "socialist market economy." This is the reason why practical interest has to come first in Korea- China relations.
* The writer is the Beijing correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.