"Did that really happen?" asked a Chinese senior editor with a state-controlled newspaper. "It's hard for me to believe it because I monitor the South Korean news everyday personally. But I didn't see it."
The Chinese editor was referring to the episode in which Xi Jinping refused to honor Park Geun-hye's hotline call in January to consult about North Korea's nuclear test. It raised many eyebrows and generated considerable hubbub among pundits here. The "non-event" with Xi came as a great contrast to the fact that Park held prompt phone consultations with U.S. President Barack Obama and the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ― the very next day after the North's test.
It was all too natural for the public to expect that Park and Xi, who were known to have personal bonds, would immediately be on the phone to address the regional crisis. That didn't happen.
At a recent closed-door seminar that discussed Seoul-Beijing ties, a prominent Chinese analyst, who advises the Chinese government, also showed a similar surprise, completely oblivious about the matter, which was a big news item here.
When Hong Ky-ttack, a South Korean, stepped down from his post as vice president of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a Chinese commentator on Korea remarked that Hong's quitting reflected South Korea's "displeasure" with China over the two countries' discord about the THAAD deployment issue. The truth is that Hong lost his job due to a domestic scandal in South Korea, involving his problematic supervision of Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (DSEM). Regrettably, the remark by the Chinese "expert" entertained enough sound bites in the Chinese public sphere, already establishing a flawed interpretation of the matter and sowing bad faith in the bilateral relationship.
After Pyongyang's recent nuclear test, China signed up for what was hailed as "the toughest ever" U.N. sanctions on North Korea, after some hesitation, calculating that doing so would lead to the cancellation of the THAAD deployment. It was simply another wrong-headed analysis and a failure to correctly "read" South Korea.
South Korea does not fear the "rise of China." Yet it should be fearful about a China that does not analyze South Korea. It may mean China does not regard South Korea as an important stakeholder. China suffers a severe collective deficit of its pool of experts who really understand South Korea.
China needs more professionalism in analyzing South Korea. What South Korea fears is not the presence of highly qualified, shrewd Chinese analysts who could "see through" South Korea, but the very lack of such qualified analysts on South Korea who propose a badly thought out policy prescription to their leadership, based on their poor grip of South Korea.
― China needs more professionalism in analyzing South Korea
In that spirit, here are some specific suggestions. First, both countries should invest in cultivating scholars and experts on the other country. It's particularly imperative on China's part though. An expert panel meeting on the bilateral relationship often reveals the participants' poor grip on language, for instance. Resources should be allocated to help train them on language, particularly for those who are tasked with crafting policy suggestions.
Second, the two nations should expand scholar-in-residence exchange programs for their young diplomats and researchers among think tanks. These opportunities should have a particular focus in helping them hone their understanding of the other's domestic politics.
Third, the two nations should regularly sponsor young scholars' conferences for academic exchanges and facilitate their network-building opportunities. In Asian cultures, including Korean and Chinese, age and respect go together. Under such a cultural canopy, young Chinese scholars often have a difficult time in securing chances to attend conferences and seminars held in South Korea, as those opportunities are often prioritized for senior scholars.
Finally, the two sides should also establish an online listserv forum for scholars and professionals to promote robust communication and reduce an inordinate amount of misunderstandings that plague the opinion fields.
― Recognize each other's different political systems
The Chinese often show a preference for discussing a sensitive diplomatic matter in a closed-door, though an informal channel. In that manner, they note, both sides can engage in frank in-depth discussions without taking the risk of being known to the outside, and preventing public embarrassment.
While it is indeed the case in China that a retired, former ranking official too often plays the role of diplomatic troubleshooting, China should understand that it will be a problematic protocol in South Korea, a democratic institution. There are layers of checks and balances on state affairs. Diplomacy is also increasingly seen as no exception. Backroom deals are frowned upon. There are legal implications too. When a nationally important diplomatic item is handled and processed without going through due process and public scrutiny, the official involved may have to be legally dealt with or face a hearing at the National Assembly.
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D. is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.