This is the first in a series of articles about skepticism growing in South Korea about China’s role as a mediating power with North Korea amid a continuing series of problematic events. — ED.
Chinese State Councillor
By Cho Jin-seo
Arrogant and hard to communicate with is how Korea’s vice foreign minister allegedly described his Chinese counterpart at the six-party talks.
This is also more or less the way ordinary Koreans are beginning to see China after the country’s ambivalent attitude toward the current inter-Korean conflict.
According to WikiLeaks, the remark from Chun Young-woo to U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens was made in February, so it has little to do with China’s reaction to the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last week. But the timing of the leak of the diplomatic cable was perfect to reflect the current sentiment here that Koreans are feeling uncomfortable with China’s double standard on the Korean Peninsula and signs of its growing unilateralism.
China has been remaining neutral on the North’s attack on the South’s island in the West Sea. So when Dai Bingguo, a special envoy, visited Seoul last weekend, most media here criticized that he was rude to demand to see President Lee Myung-bak on short notice with his accompanying Chinese reporters without consulting his Korean hosts. A few hours later, China suddenly proposed renewing the six-party talks, which South Korea could not accept at all.
Since then, many in Korea have curbed their expectations that China can help the South in reprimanding the North for it’s violent actions.
“Global society is expecting China to take a ‘fair and responsible’ role, but it seems that China has a different definition of fairness,” said Jeong Kap-young, professor of economics at Yonsei University, commenting on China’s lack of reaction to the North.
This week, the WikiLeaks files have raised further suspicion on China’s view on both Koreas. On an account dated on April 30, 2009, Dan Piccuta, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, says that a Chinese official had suggested to him that the U.S. needs to have bilateral talks with North Korea or even trilateral ones without involving South Korea. It was taken as an insult by some media in South Korea, since unification with North Korea is seen as a domestic problem here.
Coincidently or not, a string of recent incidents have damaged China’s reputation as a trustworthy friend. At the G20 Seoul Summit on Nov. 12, a Chinese reporter baffled Barack Obama as he kept insisting on asking questions to the U.S. President even though Obama himself wanted to talk with a Korean reporter first. Then, the Chinese reporter shocked every Korean in the room by saying he was representing the whole of Asia.
The recent Asian Games held in the southern Chinese province of Guangzhou didn’t help much to erase this notion of arrogance regardless of the 199 gold medals the country picked up. Snide reports were published when China won controversial gold medals in women’s basketball, cycling and women’s volleyball over South Korea, though some admitted that Korea itself was not very shy from taking home advantage when hosting the 1986 Asian games and 1988 Olympics.
Economically, China is Seoul’s closest business partner. This year, one third of Korea’s exports went to China. More than 20,000 Korean firms have branches or are doing business in the country, and the number of Korean visitors exceeded 3.2 million last year.
But from the political and historical perspective, China is still more emotionally attached to North Korea, scholars say. This runs from the Korean War, when hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers, including the eldest son of Mao Zedong, lost their lives, fighting for the communist North against South Korean and United Nations allied forces.
There is no fixed account but some estimates show that the Chinese casualties were larger than those of North Korea, South Korea and the United States combined. Even these days, the Military Museum in Beijing proudly displays flags of U.S. and South Korean army units that they had captured six decades ago.
Some Chinese academics say that it is South Koreans who have double standards on the Sino-Korean relationship. While Korean officials want China to stimulate and assist the North in economic development, they also want China to join South Korea and the United States in reprimanding the Kim Jong-il regime, they say.
“People say it is a case of sour grapes. South Korea says (China) is bad because it cannot do (what China can do about North Korea,)” says Jin Jinyi, a prominent scholar, in a talk with Yonsei professor Moon Jung-in in 2009.