Is President’s Granddaughter Learning Chinese Too?
Korea Times Correspondent
BEIJING ― This week quietly marked the 17th anniversary of South Korea and China establishing full diplomatic ties, which left behind the decades-old Cold War estrangement.
Although the word "China" has since been a buzzword in South Korea just as it is everywhere else on the planet, especially among the business nomads who have flocked there, South Korean policy makers' enthusiasm on the new global magnet has been strangely moderate, if not subdued. This warrants correction, observed an eminent strategist.
"It's like an earthquake is about to happen. Korean business people have the animal instinct and can feel it coming. So, they are moving ahead. But politicians are human beings. They are slow to react," said Cho Dong-sung, who teaches about the relationship between political policy and business strategy at Seoul National University, during a dinner chat here in the Chinese capital.
Today, China is the epicenter of seismic global change. "China's rise" has also become a global mantra. Yet "10 years ago, no economics professor would compare China and the United States. About five years ago, there were some opinions that China 'might' become the largest global economy in half a century or so. Recently, people have begun to provide more specific years such as 2045, and lately, 2025.
"My sense is that the day will come sooner than 2025," said Cho, attributing it to the global financial crisis that hit the United States hard, hobbling the frontrunner.
To prepare for the "China Era," today many Korean parents send their children to China for education, not to mention the influx of Korean business people, whose "animal instinct" has been at the forefront of this national fever for the "Middle Kingdom."
But conspicuously missing from the pack are South Korean politicians. In fact, South Korea's obsession with China has been driven largely by economic interest, with political ties relatively lagging behind.
Actually, recent queries to South Korea's handful of "China hands" into who advises President Lee Myung-bak on China were answered with head-scratching and shrugging.
A Seoul-based scholar who often shuttles to China, and who is regarded as a person "in the know" on the subject, said that as far as he knows, there is "no one" who advises President Lee on China.
He explained that in South Korea the term "foreign policy" has traditionally meant "American policy," and this is particularly pronounced in the Lee administration, which is leaning closer to Washington than that of his predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun.
"South Korea's China policy is, in a sense, 'automatically' sorted out after it first determines its policy toward the United States," he said.
Unfortunately, that also leaves the nuance that South Korea lacks an independent policy on China.
This "imbalance" of South Korea toward China, with political "neglect" on one hand and economic obsession on the other, naturally needs some reconciliation.
Although South Korea's political gravitation toward the U.S. as a key strategic ally since the Korean War has its historical roots, what is troublesome is South Korea's lack of initiative to prepare and forge its own China strategy to hedge out a future relationship with the rising superpower that lies right next to it.
Even some of South Korea's existing political interactions with China are not the result of pure bilateral consultations but come largely from their cooperation in persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear ambition.
The lack of bilateral political exchange between the two is reflected in the lack of progress in deciding the nature of their relationship.
In their summit in May last year, President Lee and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao agreed to upgrade bilateral relations to a "strategic" partnership.
It has already been over a year and the two have yet to come up with a consensus on what that the term "strategic" is supposed to mean.
Some defend that South Korea's "all-out" diplomacy towards Washington, which eclipses its relationship with China, is no different from China's "all-out" overtures towards Washington.
Although the status of the United Status as the sole superpower is becoming tainted by China's rise, the best and brightest talents in China and South Korea still primarily focus on the U.S., some say.
Others find the reason for the "economic warm and political cool" relations between the two to lie in differences in political ideology.
Many South Koreans are still nervous about the "Communist" China, especially in view of the South's legacy of strained relationships with North Korea.
Supporters of this school of thought view South Korea's predominant interest in China in economic terms as a natural step of getting to know its giant Communist neighbor before they both find more common ground for a dialogue that would eventually extend to the political arena.
Cho, who has been visiting China since 1990 and also teaches at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business ― an affluent institution founded by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing ― urges people to be more forward-looking and strategic.
For him, the "Red China" fear is overblown. He sees similarities between China's rise and Napoleon's return from the island Elba.
"It took Napoleon 13 days to travel from Elba to Paris. People were initially fearful of his arrival. Newspapers portrayed him as a blood-sucking Dracula. But by the time he arrived in Paris, they called him 'emperor.' That was how the perception changed. China's rise is similar," he said.
To prepare for the "China Era," Cho's kindergarten-aged granddaughter is learning Chinese. By the way, is President Lee's granddaughter learning Chinese as well?
But for Cho, time is already ticking as he is already seeing the manifestation of what he predicted earlier. For example, China's income per head today is about $3,500.
"But according to the latest CIA report that took consideration of purchasing power parity, it is already about $12,600," he said before going on to provide other figures to back up his argument.
Of course, the Harvard-educated professor is conscious of the fact that he can be perceived as a "panda hugger."
"Some people say that I've become a panda-hugger because I've visited China so many times," he said. "But when you look at the figures yourself, it's strange to me if you can't agree with me."