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Korea - China Relations

Seoul now faces many structural dilemma which it cannot solve without help from Beijing, for example, boosting its sluggish economy, and mediating to ease its ties with North Korea. The "China threat" narrative peddled by two senior US envoys in March 2021 may be downplayed by South Korea" Chinese observers predicted, noting that South Korea, which relies heavily on China both economically and politically, will pose as the "weak link" of the US strategy of encircling Beijing in this region. Seoul's reluctance to openly defy China coincides with Chinese observers' views that South Korea, with strong political and economic reliance on China, will distance itself from the US-initiated Asian alliance to contain China.

When North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, the poor quality of the South Korean armed forces immediately became apparent. Although South Korea had 94,000 troops when North Korea began its all-out surprise attack, one week later only 20,000 troops could be accounted for. By early September 1950, the invading forces held all of South Korea except for the PusanTaegu corridor in the southeast.

The United Nations (UN) Security Council, upon the request of the United States, condemned North Korea's invasion of South Korea and asked members of the UN to assist South Korea. Fifteen nations besides the United States and South Korea eventually provided troops; all forces fought under the UN flag and under the unified command of General Douglas A. MacArthur, commander in chief of UN forces. These combined forces successfully broke North Korea's extended supply lines by landing at Inch'on in September 1950. The invading forces were pushed back to near the Chinese border. Only the massive intervention of the Chinese People's Volunteers (CPV) in October averted the defeat of the North Korean forces. United Nations and communist forces fought to a standstill.

The external posture of South Korea in general, and toward North Korea in particular, began a new chapter in the 1980s. While retaining its previous goal--enhancing political legitimacy, military security, and economic development by maintaining close ties with the West--South Korea greatly expanded its diplomatic horizons by launching its ambitious pukpang chongch'aek, northern policy, or Nordpolitik. Nordpolitik was Seoul's version of the Federal Republic of Germany's (West Germany) Ostpolitik of the early 1970s.

President Chun Doo Hwan [1980-1988] continued Park's policy of improving relations with China and the Soviet Union and attached considerable importance to these two countries, long the allies of North Korea. Beijing and Moscow were thought to have much influence in charting the future of the Korean Peninsula and were thus a part of Nordpolitik.

Seoul's official contact with Beijing was facilitated by the landing of a hijacked Chinese civilian airliner in May 1983. China sent a delegation of thirty-three officials to Seoul to negotiate the return of the airliner, marking the beginning of frequent exchanges of personnel. For example, in March 1984, a South Korean tennis team visited Kunming for a Davis Cup match with a Chinese team. In April 1984, a thirty-four-member Chinese basketball team arrived in Seoul to participate in the Eighth Asian Junior Basketball Championships. Some Chinese officials reportedly paid quiet visits to South Korea to inspect its industries, and South Korean officials visited China to attend various international conferences. Since China and South Korea began indirect trade in 1975, the volume steadily increased.

Beijing's needs for Seoul in the 1980s were hardly matched with those of Moscow, particularly in economic terms. Still, because of complementary economic needs and geographic proximity, South Korea and China began to trade actively. The absence of any official relations, however, made it difficult to expand trade between Seoul and Beijing, because South Korea could not legally protect its citizens and business interests in China.

Beijing, in comparison with Moscow, has been politically closer to P'yongyang, which has slowed political improvements between Beijing and Seoul despite the increasing volume of trade between the two countries. Furthermore, China has attempted to mediate between North Korea and the United States and North Korea and Japan and also initiated and promoted tripartite talks--among P'yongyang, Seoul, and Washington.

Active South Korean-Chinese people-to-people contacts have been encouraged. Academics, journalists, and particularly families divided between South Korea and China were able to exchange visits freely in the late 1980s. Nearly 2 million ethnic Koreans, especially in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China's Jilin Province, have interacted with South Koreans.

It has been difficult to determine what effect the political turmoil in China would have on Sino-Korean relations. After the military crackdown on demonstrators in Beijing in June 1989, P'yongyang predictably came out in support of Beijing's repressive actions. Seoul, on the other hand, produced a more muted response, which did not condone the actions in Tiananmen Square, but did not condemn them either. Trade between the two countries continued to increase.

Sino-ROK ties had undergone tremendous development since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992 and had been "upgraded" roughly every five years. The bilateral relationship was upgraded to "cooperative partnership" in 1998, to "comprehensive cooperative partnership" in 2002, and most recently to "strategic cooperative partnership" in 2008. Beijing and Seoul closely cooperated on a variety of global issues such as UN reform, climate change, the global financial crisis and, of course, North Korea.

The PRC's image took a nosedive since the Goguryeo Dynasty first became a hot-button issue in 2004. Polling data provided by the Office of Research showed a somewhat consistent "favorable" image of the PRC of around 70 percent from May 2000 until March 2004, but then a steep decline to an average of approximately 50 percent from March 2004 to 2007. More tellingly, the "unfavorable" image of the PRC increased from a consistent 30-percent level to around 50 percent. In addition, the volatility of the two figures suggested an ambivalence of South Korean views toward the PRC. The hopes for the PRC as an Asian partner struggle against concerns that China will turn into an adversary. In other words, sentiments of the PRC being a friendly "brother" Asian nation shifted to increasing worries that the PRC will turn out to be a "Big Brother" with designs on the Korean peninsula.

The Goguryeo controversy began in 2004 when PRC scholars at the state-funded Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), working to promote an idea of a "Greater China" national identity in what was called the "Northeast Project," claimed the Goguryeo kingdom as a part of the regional history of China rather than as a Korean kingdom. This created strong concerns in the ROK over fears that the "Greater China" nationalism, as demonstrated by the PRC's Northeast Project, might be used to justify expansionism into areas of historic Chinese dominance such as the Korean peninsula, according to Korean scholars.

More than just the fear of Chinese territorial designs, the elimination of the larger Korean nation was perceived as a possibility if the Northeast Project was indicative of the PRC's strategy in East Asia. The fear of Korea being "swallowed" by China contrasted sharply with the former prevailing view that the PRC was becoming a benevolent power, more interested in business and commerce than territorial expansion. In light of these fears, Yoon said that the Korean internal debate over whether the US or the PRC should be favored as the major partner country in the future had swung increasingly toward the US.

The disconcerting build-up of China's Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) could pose a long-term threat to Korean autonomy. The commonly held view in Korea today is that the PRC currently poses no threat to the ROK, is in fact well thought of, and affords many economic opportunities for Korean companies in the short to mid-term. At the same time, many Koreans believe China does pose a significant challenge to the South Korean economy, and perhaps even to its autonomy, in the longer term. Beijing's position on a unified Korean Peninsula is uncertain, while its lack of political and military transparency made it an unpredictable force in the region. Historically it was China, not Japan, that posed the greatest threat to Korea.

While the political relationship between Beijing and Seoul was important, the foundation of the bilateral relationship was economic cooperation. There was "consensus" in Beijing and Seoul that South Korea's economic growth was now tied to China's economy and would develop and benefit along with China's growth. There had been some tension in the Sino-ROK commercial relationship in 2009 when Chinese workers complained about unpaid wages after numerous ROK factory owners abruptly shut down operations in order to avoid complying with new labor regulations. The two governments dealt with this issue and continued to educate ROK investors about China's new labor regulations. Beijing was focused on improving the quality of ROK investments in China and hoped to attract more high-tech investments in the environment and communication sectors.

China and the ROK were slowly developing a mil-to-mil relationship. The two militaries had established a hotline in 2008, had conducted joint naval search and rescue operations, and exchanged high-level military visits.

Seoul and Beijing, enemies during the Korean War in the 1950s, were bonding somewhat over their mutual distrust of Japan, despite recent tensions of their own. South Korea also needs China's help to rein in North Korea on its nuclear weapons program. In 2010, relations between the countries cooled when China refused to condemn North Korea for the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship and the shelling of an island. Seoul's efforts towards greater cooperation since the 2010 attacks have paid off; Beijing has become more openly critical of Pyongyang on the nuclear issue. At that time, China was helping and supporting North Korea. However, since South Korea raised the nuclear issue, Chinas view on North Korea has changed considerably. Seoul's warming relations with Beijing were primarily focused on trade, and were not indicative of a major shift in relations.

China and South Korea agreed on 03 July 2014 to expand economic ties and reaffirmed their commitment to a denuclearized Korean peninsula, as Chinese President Xi Jinping began a state visit to Seoul. His trip marked the first time a Chinese president has visited South Korea before North Korea and the fifth time Park and Xi have met since they took office. Xi had not yet met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who inherited office in 2011.

At a joint news briefing with Xi, South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Seoul and Beijing will work to complete a long-negotiated free trade agreement by the end of 2014. Seoul's finance ministry also said the two sides agreed to introduce direct trading between the South Korean won and the Chinese yuan, a measure that will expand the use of China's currency. The decision meant the yuan joins the dollar as the only currency directly convertible with the won.

China expressed its serious concern to parties involved in the joint military drill by the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the United States, which brought the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and other U.S. strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula. "The current situation on the Korean Peninsula is highly sensitive and complicated," said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang 03 March 2017. "Parties concerned should do more to ease tensions on the Peninsula and maintain the peace and stability of northeast Asia."

Foreign Minister Wang Yi met the press 08 March 2017. "To defuse the looming crisis on the peninsula, China proposes that, as a first step, the DPRK suspend its missile and nuclear activities in exchange for a halt of the large-scale US-ROK exercises. This suspension-for-suspension can help us break out of the security dilemma and bring the parties back to the negotiating table. Then we can follow the dual-track approach of denuclearizing the peninsula on the one hand and establishing a peace mechanism on the other. Only by addressing the parties' concerns in a synchronized and reciprocal manner, can we find a fundamental solution to lasting peace and stability on the peninsula....

"The US-ROK deployment of the controversial THAAD system in the ROK is the biggest issue affecting China-ROK relations at the moment. China has expressed its strong opposition to it all along. The monitoring and early warning radius of THAAD reaches far beyond the Korean Peninsula, and it's common knowledge that THAAD undermines China's strategic security. Clearly, deploying THAAD is the wrong choice. It's not how neighbors should behave to each other, and it may very well make the ROK less secure. We strongly advise some elements in the ROK not to pursue this course of action, otherwise they will only end up hurting themselves as well as others. China urges the ROK to cease and desist, halt the THAAD deployment and not to go further down the wrong path."

A cruise ship arrived on 12 March 2017 at Korea's southern resort island of Jeju-do, only to find that all 3,400 Chinese passengers refused to get off. The Costa Serena cruise ship had come from Fukuoka, Japan but the captain was unaware of the situation until the ship came into port. Jeju-do Island has been especially popular with tourists from China in recent years. But the island officials say this is the first time in 20 years something like this has happened. After four hours, the ship set sail for its next stop, Tianjin, China. Beijing had strongly opposed the deployment of the US missile defense system THAAD, claiming the system's radar could be used to spy on the Chinese military.

A July 2017 US survey suggested Chinas economic retaliation over South Korea's deployment of US-provided THAAD missile defense had negatively affected South Korean perceptions of the Chinese people. The US-based Pew Research Center's international survey reported 61 percent of South Korean respondents hold unfavorable views of the Chinese, while only 34 percent said their views were favorable. It was the lowest favorable South Koreans have been toward Chinese since Pew began conducting the survey in 2002.

On 31 October 2017 the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that "Enhancing communication and cooperation is in accordance with the common interests of China and the ROK. Both sides agree to bring communication and cooperation in various fields back on the normal track as soon as possible". The ministry press release said: "Both sides attach great importance to China-ROK ties and stand ready to promote their strategic cooperative partnership... "China and the ROK reaffirmed the principles of realizing denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and reaching a peaceful settlement of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue".

The release said that the ROK acknowledged China's stance and concerns on the deployment of the THAAD missile system. "The ROK made it clear that the deployment of THAAD in the ROK will not target any third country, and will not harm China's strategic security and interests," the release said. It said that China reiterated its opposition to THAAD, as a matter of national security. "The Chinese side takes note of the ROK's stance and hopes the ROK side will properly handle the relevant issues," the release said. "Both sides agreed to keep communication through military-to-military channels."

A senior official at the Blue House said, The principle of the three nos is not a promise we made to China, but more of a statement that this has been our position thus far. The US apparently regards this as a promise to China, but I think well be able to clear that up. In response to South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwas negative remarks about deploying additional THAAD batteries, joining the US missile defense network or entering a military alliance with the US and Japan [the three nos], US National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster said on 02 November 2017 said he doesnt think that South Korea would give up its sovereignty in those three areas. McMaster said that he did not think that Kangs statements had been definitive enough to call them policy principles.

China's foreign minister, Wang Yi, told his South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha at a meeting on 22 November 2017, "Beijing values Seoul's positions to not* add to the existing THAAD system, to not* participate in the US-led missile defense system, and not* participate in a S. Korea-U.S.-Japan military allianceas well as its vow not* to harm China's security interests." Local analysts from a Chinese state-sanctioned newspaper report warned that if Seoul does not honour these pledges, it could cause "irreversible damage to mutual trust." The emphasis on this issue caught some off guard, as the October 31st agreement was thought to have smoothen frictions between Seoul and Beijing for now.

China has a domestic issue, a difficulty to explain a sudden change of attitude to its own public. Initially, China explained the THAAD issues as South Korea violating China's core interests but then China actually lifted economic sanctions against South Korea. So now China is in a very awkward position.

With Chinese President Xi Jinping's re-election as head of the Communist Party, there were signs in numerous areas showing an improvement in bilateral relations.

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Page last modified: 13-09-2021 14:44:40 ZULU