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China Courts South Korea

On Sunday, China’s Xi Jinping and South Korea’s Park Geun-hye met on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, their fourth meeting in less than ten months.

The two leaders discussed cooperative projects they have been working on since last year, including a memorial hall in China to honor Ahn Jung-geun, a Korean independence fighter known for his 1909 assassination of Hirobumi Ito, when he was Japan’s first governor general of Korea. Xi also said his country would dedicate a stone marker honoring Korean independence fighters. Park, for her part, said Seoul would repatriate 400 sets of remains of Chinese soldiers from the Korean War.

The Chinese and the Koreans now find themselves in tenuous agreement in some areas, united by an enmity toward Japan that’s far stronger than the memory of the 1950s war in which Mao Zedong’s China supported North Korea’s attempt to conquer the Republic of Korea. Yet on the important issues of today, Beijing and Seoul remain far apart. As a result, it is doubtful that China will ultimately pull South Korea into its orbit.

It appears, for instance, there was no agreement at Sunday’s meeting on the substantive issues relating to the “denuclearization” of Pyongyang. Moreover, it’s unlikely Park obtained Beijing’s promise to allow the referral to the International Criminal Court of a UN report on North Korea’s horrific human rights violations. China, a permanent member of the Security Council, has signaled its intention to veto or otherwise prevent the referral.

In trying to tempt Seoul away from Washington, however, Beijing is not empty-handed. South Korea, more than most other countries in the region, is trying to develop a strong relationship with China. Most notably, Park chose Beijing as the destination for her second foreign trip as president, breaking tradition by traveling there before Tokyo. Moreover, China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, and the two nations look like they will sign a free-trade deal in the coming months, further cementing ties.

Park’s “G-2” strategy, which seeks to maintain good relations with both Washington and Beijing, bears some resemblance to the approach of one of her predecessors, Roh Moo-hyun, the occupant of the Blue House from 2003 to 2008. Roh sought to distance his country from ally Washington, steering an independent path that delighted Beijing. South Korea, Roh said, should play a “balancing role,” switching sides on an issue-by-issue basis between the “northern alliance” of Beijing, Moscow, and Pyongyang and the “southern alliance” of Washington and Tokyo.

Roh’s approach didn’t work, and his two successors—Lee Myung-bak and Park—have now moved their country closer to the US.  Chinese policymakers, if they want Seoul to move into their fold, will need to make two fundamental shifts. First, they will have to end their country’s special relationship with the horrible Kim regime in Pyongyang. Although Beijing’s perceived influence over Kim gives South Korean leaders incentives to cooperate with their Chinese counterparts, it also tars China. This was especially evident in 2010 when Beijing stood firmly behind North Korea after it killed 50 South Koreans in two incidents.

Second, the Chinese will have to abandon their territorial ambitions on South Korea. The flashpoint is Socotra Rock, a formation about 15 feet below low tide in the Yellow Sea. The South Koreans, who call it Ieodo, have built a research station over it and claim it is within their exclusive economic zone. The Chinese also claim the formation, undeterred by the fact that the rock lies 80 nautical miles from South Korea’s Marado Island and almost twice that distance from the nearest territory belonging to the People’s Republic of China.

It looks like the Chinese are wedded to their policies and will not be able change them to accommodate South Korea. Beijing has bitterly complained about Seoul’s pro-US drift since the Roh years, but it maintains policies Seoul abhors. Chinese policymakers, therefore, have no one to blame but themselves.

 

Photo Credit: KOREA.NET

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