Ups and downs: 25 years of China-South Korea ties

From a meandering journey to the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1992 to the honeymoon period of bilateral ties in 2015, and then to the confrontation caused by the deployment of a US missile defense system in 2016, the China-South Korea relations has been like a roller coaster in the past 25 years, going up and down, leaving many people wondering whether bilateral ties could finally be put on the healthy track of development.

Prologue

While diplomatic ties between China and South Korea were founded in 1992, it had a lot of things to do with the then international environment.

“The beginning of the 1990s was a transitional period for the world order. Germany got united, while Soviet Union fell. Meanwhile, Beijing held Asian Games in 1990 which was attended by South Korea, and that has become a significant moment for the development of China-South Korea relations,” said Chung Sang-ki, former head of the Asian Affairs Department of South Korea's foreign ministry.

Chung, who began working for South Korea’s foreign ministry in 1977, has since then made contact with China, and still vividly remembers the behind-the-scene stories of the founding of China-South Korea diplomatic ties.

While South Korea contributed 20% to the expenditure of Beijing Asian Games in 1990, advertisement spending by South Korean companies surpassed $15 million at that time.

Around 4,000 South Korean people visited China during the Asian Games period in 1990, and China used the English name of South Korea on formal occasions.

In January 1991, South Korea set up the Beijing office of Korea Trade Promotion Corporation, for which Chung was sent to Beijing, and in April the same year, China also set up an office for the China Chamber of International Commerce in Seoul.

While Chung, together with his other colleagues, was sent to China with the mission to promote the establishment of bilateral ties, a trade office at that time was not allowed to make contact directly with China’s foreign ministry.

Following that in November 1991, then Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen led a Chinese delegation to attend the Third APEC Ministerial Meeting held in Seoul, which captured the attention of international community as China and South Korea had not diplomatic ties.

“But since Russia and South Korea had already established diplomatic ties by that time, it was somewhat (less embarrassing) for China,” said Chung.

Secret negotiations

Before established official ties mainland, South Korea had already established diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1948 which the mainland claimed as part of its territory. And this meant the negotiation to establish China-South Korea diplomatic ties had to be conducted indoors in order to avoid potential sabotage from those who supported South Korea-Taiwan ties.

“There were three negotiations before the establishment, two of which were conducted in the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing,” Chung recalled. “The most important thing was to keep secrecy, as for China, it needed to take into consideration both North Korea and Taiwan. The focus of the negotiation was how South Korea should deal with its relations with Taiwan.”

To ensure confidentiality, Korean representatives assigned to China for the negotiation had to change the flight in a city like Tokyo and Hong Kong to get to Beijing, instead of taking a “direct” flight from Seoul to Beijing.

South Korean representatives were not allowed to go out and were asked to stay in the hotel, according to Chung. “One night they went out to buy beer due to the boredom. Suddenly one of them began singing, and the other all followed. The second day as we apologized to the Chinese, they said ‘it’s OK, we understand that Korean people love singing and drinking,’” recalled Chung, who was impressed by the tolerance of Chinese.

On August 23, 1992, one day before the establishment of China-South Korea diplomatic ties, Taiwan broke off its relations with South Korea.

‘Honeymoon’

Less than two years ago, many people were celebrating the beginning of a “brand new honeymoon” in China-South Korea relations, when former South Korea President Park Geun-hye attended a military parade at the Tiananmen Square on September 3, 2015.

On the day of the parade, Xi was flanked by Russian President Vladimir Putin on the right and Park on the left as they walked up the stairs leading up to the tower atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace. When reviewing the troops marching below, Park stood to the right of Putin, who was next to Xi. To the left of Xi were Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, both former presidents of China.

“China-South Korea relations were at a historical high,” said Cao Mingquan, head of the Chinese Korean Association. “Park’s attendance at the parade was seen as a sign that tensions in Northeast Asia would be eased and many also thought Park had made a brave decision to attend despite the pressure from Western countries.”

However, there were still some in the conservative party strongly opposing Park’s attendance of the parade and accusing her of jeopardizing South Korea’s alliance with the United States.

Following North Korea’s several missile tests in 2016 and amid escalating accusations on China of not putting enough pressure on North Korea, Park turned to a positive side to deploy the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea, a move which would enhance its alliance with the US, while irritating China.

Rise of tensions

High-level communications between China and South Korea were “almost frozen” around one month after Seoul and Washington announced to deploy THAAD in South Korea in July 2016, according to Zhang Zhongyi, deputy secretary general of The Charhar Institute, a non-governmental organization which is committed to promoting progress in China’s foreign policies. While South Korea once tried to provide some eclectic method after the deployment, China remained unchanged to its position to remove THAAD in South Korea.

Following that was a nationwide anger in China, and Chinese stopped buying many South Korean products.

Such a confrontation was somewhat eased by the election of Moon Jae-in as the new president of South Korea who advocated improving China-South Korea relations and relieving pressure on the Korean peninsula during his election campaign.

According to Zhang, before Moon was sworn into the office, there was a private meeting between Moon and Han Fangming, founding chairman of The Charhar Institute and a member of Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), which was the only meeting between Moon and a Chinese politician prior to his taking office.

Signs of improvement

While Moon’s election has brought hopes of improvement in future China-South Korea relations, there are some signs showing Moon is trying to mend the deteriorating bilateral ties.

According to Park Sangchul, professor of Kyonggi University of South Korea, Noh Young-min, a former lawmaker of the ruling Minjoo Party, had been tapped, but not officially announced yet, for ambassador to China, a move that shows that the new administration attaches great importance to its relations with China.

“Noh was the person in charge for Moon’s team during the presidential campaign, who President Moon trusts very much,” said Park who is familiar with Noh and also has a good relationship with Moon. “By appointing a person like Noh who is able to transmit President Moon’s meaning clearly, I think China-South Korea relations will be improved soon.”

Another person who also has high credibility in Moon’s administration is Lee Hae-chan who was sent to China in May to attend the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, supporting President Xi Jinping’s proposal of the “Belt and Road” initiative.

In Beijing, Lee met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi who said that Moon’s sending a special envoy to China “embodies the new ROK government’s great attention to its relations with China as well as its urgent desire to improve bilateral relations as soon as possible.”

“While there were ups and downs in China-South Korea relations, the worst time for the bilateral ties have passed,” said Lee Sang Gi, former defense attaché of the South Korean embassy in China, who pays close attention to China-South Korea relations.

The first meeting between Xi and Moon after the latter’s election came on July 6 ahead of a G20 summit in Germany, during which both of them showed their intention to return bilateral ties to the track of healthy development.


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