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[Kim Myong-sik] What China means to South Koreans today

“How do you think the current North Korean denuclearization deal will be wrapped up?” A Chinese-American friend of mine asked me when we sat in a Korean restaurant at Incheon Airport last week. A research fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, she was returning to California after a seminar with members of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

She was curious about what average South Korean intellectuals expect from China in the current campaign to end the North’s nuclear threats. “I don’t know, but I believe China can at least do something about the speed with which it goes to a conclusion,” I told her.

T.C. Kuo had come to America in the early 1980s with a Taiwanese passport and later became an American citizen. She is a believer in the “One China” policy and follows her faith by traveling through Taiwan, China and Korea as often as possible for research and “exposure to changes” in the region.

The early dinner with Kuo that afternoon was not meant for a discussion on the progress of the denuclearization negotiations or geopolitics in Northeast Asia, but it took me to a personal review, after the guest left, of how we South Koreans are looking at China in the diplomatic war on and around the Korean Peninsula.

Having passed so many years amid conflict and confrontation with the North, we think we know what they are up to. North and South Koreans speak the same language; deception is impossible and will not work. We can tell whether Kim Jong-un is aiming at the conquest of the South or survival of his regime. At least President Moon Jae-in, who has met Kim three times this year, and his security affairs aides believe so.

With China, nothing is for sure. Distrust runs so deep toward the neighboring country that many here argue Beijing is actually sabotaging the denuclearization negotiations because it does not want North Korea to lose its nuclear capabilities totally. The prevailing idea among knowledgeable people is that if China shows any enthusiasm for denuclearization, it is only to the end of the departure of US forces from South Korea.

It is regrettable that people-to-people and government-to-government trust remains low between the two countries despite the close economic partnership built up since diplomatic normalization in 1992 and millenniums of cultural interactions behind them. Sorry to Kuo, one of my most trusted friends.

Throughout the tedious denuclearization process, Beijing has played complex roles, taking different postures toward Pyongyang, first as supposedly neutral host to the six-party talks from the early 2000s, then as clandestine patron for the international outcast, then as reluctant participant in harsh UN sanctions, leaving back channels open. Meanwhile, the North conducted six nuclear tests by 2017.

The international community expects that China and South Korea will provide practical compensation for North Korea when negotiations come to a successful end. If Washington declares an end to the Korean War and vouches for nonaggression in a peace treaty, and when the North removes and destroys all its weapons of mass destruction, China and South Korea are to pick up most of the bills issued by Pyongyang. But how far will China follow this hypothetical path?

So often, we have found a backstreet bully in Chinese behaviors on matters of self-interest. The worst examples were the series of retaliatory measures over the deployment of the US-operated Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system here. Lotte Group, which provided the site for a THAAD battery, closed many shopping outlets in China due to systematic boycotts. Chinese officials insisted such retaliation had all been privately initiated.

Xi Jinping’s three meetings with Kim this year, two of them taking place before and after Kim’s summit talks with President Trump, were the big brother’s ringside coaching for the young leader making his diplomatic debut to confront the capitalist world. Kim’s procrastination for his part in the process must be due to Beijing’s advice and encouragement.

Since the middle of August, we have had miraculously clear skies. Chinese observatories report as much as a 30 percent cut in fine particulate matter in the air to an average 20 micrograms per cubic meter in the case of Beijing thanks to tough restrictive measures such as ban on the use of fossil fuels and relocation of polluting plants. South Koreans attribute the clean air to the southeasterly winds blowing from the Pacific Ocean rather than Chinese efforts to reduce air pollution.

People here brace themselves for the suffocating fine dust in the cold season of westerly winds when air stream from China’s industrial zones carry harmful chemical pollutants in massive volumes that cause an increase in cancers here. They deplore the Chinese act of moving polluting plants to east coast locations away from the population centers of Beijing, Dalian and Tianjin but closer to Korea across the West Sea.

The recent explosive popularity of Korean movie “The Great Battle” reveals the general sentiment South Koreans have concerning China and the Chinese deep in their hearts. Based on the history of the Tang Dynasty’s invasion of the Goguryeo Kingdom in the 7th century, cinemagoers say they experience catharsis from the superb battle scenes in which 5,000 Korean soldiers defended the fort of Ansiseong against 200,000 Chinese troops. The persistent Chinese claim to integrate Goguryeo (37 BC-668 AD) into Chinese history must have drawn more viewers to the film.

The rapid rise of China inspires awe, but its political system shows retrogression from an oligarchy to an autocracy with the ruling Communist Party capable of doing anything from manipulating box office figures of the movie industry to deciding what to do about tax-dodging celebrities.

At this crucial time when the denuclearization task calls for concerted efforts by all responsible actors, we hope that the Chinese get over their egocentrism, the trauma of “100 years of humiliation” and premature sense of triumph in the world economy, and instead exhibit national-level maturity worthy of global leadership. Meanwhile, we need to convince the Chinese how valuable a partner South Korea is in pursuing the common goal of regional peace and prosperity, with our robust economy and sustainable democracy. 

Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He served as head of the Korean Overseas Information Service in the 2000s. -- Ed.