Soul-searching needed for mending fences
No celebratory mood prevails on the occasion of the 19th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Seoul and Beijng Wednesday. Despite record-breaking economic ties, the two countries have a long way to go before they deepen cooperation.
The enemies of the Korean War swapped embassies in 1992. President Roh Tae-woo's Northern Policy, namely opening ties with communist countries, bore fruit.
Deng Xiaoping was crucial in mending fences between Seoul and Beijing. Deng wanted to kill two birds with one stone. He wanted to put the inward-looking China on a solid economic development trajectory modeled after Korea. He also sought to overcome Beijing's international isolation following the brutal crackdown of the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement in 1989.
China is now Korea's largest trading partner, with their bilateral trade exceeding Korea's trade with the United States and Japan combined. China was Korea's economic buffer zone during the 2008 global financial crisis which originated from the United States.
It is safe to say that the Middle Kingdom might have taken a longer period of time to become the world's second largest economy without trade with Korea. People-to-people exchanges have also been on a flying path.
They have yet to become buddies of old stomping grounds. Beijing has repeatedly broken international practices and norms in defense of wayward North Korea. It embraced Pyongyang even when North Korea sank South Korea's Navy frigate Cheonan and shelled the border island of Yeonpyeong. It simply winked at the North's actions. It backs the unprecedented three-generation dynastic transfer of power. It sends back most North Korean defectors to one of the world’s most impoverished countries.
Beijing’s behavior in human rights and democratization rarely matches its economic prowess. It is the origin of copycat and unhygienic products. It has yet to crack down on hackers which have paralyzed Internet networks in Korea. Its dumping of waste has polluted the sea bordering Korea and China.
Feelings are mutual, however. China's blind embracement of the North is a reaction to the strong Seoul-Washington alliance. Seoul needs to pursue an equidistance policy with the United States, China and Russia.
China also has big stakes in influencing the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Beijing could either be a spoiler or a helper on the fate of the divided Koreas. The two countries also need to strengthen public diplomacy. Anti-China and anti-Korea sentiments still linger. South Koreans need to treat Chinese well in Korea. Maltreatment of Chinese workers and students here has often been the source of their less-friendly sentiments on South Korea.
The two countries have yet to learn that they can become true friends without alienating each other's friends. A friend's friend is not necessarily an enemy. They have yet to realize the dawning era of East Asia, the most dynamic region in the world. East Asian countries, including Japan, can become an alternative global economic engine, if they can brush aside old enmities.