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Spats mar 20 years of China ties

Rows over history, territory, N.K., torture put strain on relations

This is the second in a series of articles to mark the 20th anniversary of diplomatic ties between South Korea and China. ― Ed.

China’s release of a Korean activist late last month was supposed to remove a sharp thorn in relations between the neighbors set to celebrate their 20th anniversary of diplomatic ties. But it was only the start of a new diplomatic spat as the former detainee, Kim Young-hwan, revealed torture and inhumane treatment by Chinese investigators.

Bilateral relations again deteriorated, anti-Chinese sentiment spiked among Koreans, and Korean diplomats came under fire at home for their weak response.

The incident highlighted the volatile fault lines between the countries plagued by disputes over history, territorial rows, fishing rights, treatment of North Korean defectors and cross-border crimes.

For Korea, the rising global power is already one of its biggest trade, tourism and investment partners and the most important leverage holder in deterring Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. For China, a closer relationship with Korea is indispensable in stabilizing Northeast Asia, keeping the U.S. and Japan in check and securing industrial technologies.

The two governments have been trying hard to prevent tricky issues from hampering the partnership and to foster a future-oriented relationship. But experts say it will be an uphill struggle as shown by the ups and downs in their ties since their establishment on Aug. 24, 1992.

History rows

The checkered history shared by the two countries through two millennia has been a perennial source of tension. The disputes have become intense and frequent over the past several years as China has increasingly asserted cultural hegemony, or Sinocentrism, commensurate with its ascendency in the global economy and politics.

The focal point of the argument is the ancient Korean kingdom of Goguryeo (B.C. 37 to A.D. 668), located across what is now the northern Korean Peninsula and southern Manchuria. Through the so-called Northeast Project, China maintains the region was historically under its rule.

Beijing regards Goguryeo as its former vassal, a view dismissed by Korean officials and academics as a “political claim to its old territorial prowess.”

Goguryeo marks one of the most cherished eras for Koreans. The military powerhouse vastly expanded Korea’s territory. Rich in culture, it churned out a raft of distinguished scholars and Buddhist saints. The modern name of Korea also derives from it.

The most recent controversy flared up in June after an upcoming national park in the Chinese province of Jilin was reported to feature a set of statues that show a king of Balhae, which succeeded Goguryeo, on bended knee as he receives a letter from envoys of Tang Dynasty. 
Members of four civic groups including the North Korean Refugee Rescue Network rally in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul on July 27 in protest against Chinese investigators’ alleged torture of Kim Young-hwan. (Yonhap News)
Members of four civic groups including the North Korean Refugee Rescue Network rally in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul on July 27 in protest against Chinese investigators’ alleged torture of Kim Young-hwan. (Yonhap News)

The incident came two weeks after Beijing announced that its Great Wall was more than twice as long as previously thought. The measurement turned out to have included fortifications erected by the two early Korean kingdoms.

In November, Seoul complained about a documentary aired by China’s state-run CCTV. It contained a scene in which Dae Jo-yeong, Balhae founder and a former Goguryeo general, flops on his knees before a Tang ambassador.

Korean officials said they would closely watch whether Beijing has erroneously represented the history between the two countries.

“The government’s principal stance is not to overlook any possible historical distortion as it directly relates to Koreans’ ethnic identity,” Foreign Ministry deputy spokesperson Han Hye-jin told reporters after the June survey.

Surveys show that many Koreans harbor ill feeling against Sinocentrism that is considered still prevalent among the Chinese. That could be a legacy of 5,000 years of history that often made the peninsula the front line of the ancient notion, said Lim Hyung-taek, a professor emeritus at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul.

“Sinocentrism has worked not only as the theoretical foundation but also as historical and spiritual obstacles in this region and has influenced peace in East Asia,” he said in a 2008 report.

“Throughout history, East Asia seems to have already overcome this obstacle in the past and established a new political order. However, I argue that there are numerous incidents involving the reemergence of this ideology in some ways and it is likely to persist in the future.”

The multimillion-dollar Northeast Project prompted concerns about China’s territorial ambition here in 2006 when the country unilaterally moved to seek UNESCO World Heritage status for Baekdusan on the border with North Korea.

During a ceremony of the 2007 Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China, a batch of South Korean athletes held up signs reading “Baekdusan is our territory.” Chinese officials protested and anti-Korea sentiment arose around the country.

The Joseon and Qing Dynasties set the Yalu and Tumen Rivers as their border in 1913. Following independence in 1945, the newly established North Korea and China both claimed the peak of the highest mountain on the peninsula. China ultimately conceded more than half of the land.

However, Beijing is unlikely to renege on the 1962 treaty and move the border farther south so as not to kindle international criticism and further protests from minority groups in its west, said David Kang, a professor and director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California.

“Given China’s concerns about ‘one China’ and the claims made for its territorial integrity and other countries’ suspicions about a rising China’s ambitions, the worst thing China could do is to begin unilaterally renegotiating its borders,” he said in a 2011 analysis.

“If the Korea-China border is up for reconsideration then all other borders are also up for reconsideration, and it is quite likely that people in Tibet, Xinjiang and other areas will immediately claim their border should be redrawn to exclude China.

“Furthermore, if China makes a land-grab on the Korean Peninsula, the world would be immediately convinced that China is a major threat and adjust their policies accordingly.”

Torture allegation

Tensions have risen between the two countries in recent weeks after human rights activist Kim Young-hwan accused Chinese investigators of systematic abuse during his near four-month confinement.

The prominent North Korea human rights crusader said he was tortured with electricity, beaten, deprived of sleep and forced into 13 hours of daily labor. He was freed and deported on July 20, alongside his three colleagues.

Beijing insists on having found no evidence despite Seoul’s repeated requests for a reinvestigation.

Kim and his supporters said they plan to appeal to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in Geneva.

The Foreign Ministry, National Human Rights Commission and some lawmakers have shown their intent to assist.

With Seoul having few other options, a prolonged standoff may put Korean diplomacy to the test, analysts say. The country has prioritized a peaceful settlement of sensitive issues with its top trade partner and world power.

Beijing has dismissed international discussions on its own human rights record as foreign intervention in its domestic affairs.

The communist country has been blamed for sending North Korean defectors to torture, prison camps or even death by repatriating them. Along with Russia, it repeatedly vetoed U.N. sanctions against Syria in spite of 17 months of bloodshed in the Mideast nation.

Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist against China’s one-child policy, sparked the biggest diplomatic crisis in years with the U.S. until he left for New York to study law in May following a dramatic escape from 19 months of illegal house arrest to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

“Human rights is China’s Achilles’ heel,” said Kang Jun-young, a Chinese studies professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

“If we press China too much about something that took place on its soil, it may bring about an even bigger side effect.”

Yoon Pyung-joong, a political philosophy professor at Hanshin University in Gyeonggi Province, said that Seoul should still make the point clear based on principles of the treatment of foreigners.

“It’s true that China is powerful and there are practical problems such as the economy. But this case has a legitimate cause. Kim suffered more than harsh treatment ― he was tortured, even for opaque reasons,” he told The Korea Herald.

“While cautiously approaching other matters of acute conflict, the Korean government can speak up this time because human rights is a universal subject and torture is unacceptable in the civilized world.”

Maritime disputes

The East China Sea has become a flashpoint due to its ample fishing grounds and treasure trove of crude oil and natural gas. The enclosed waters cover part of the West Sea, South Sea and western Pacific.

Much of the projected reserves overlap the continental shelves of Korea, China and Japan, which each have a breadth of less than 400 nautical miles (740 kilometers).

Particularly in the West Sea, Chinese vessels have been caught illegally fishing for anchovies, blue crabs and croakers, often triggering clashes between the fishermen and Korean authorities.

Beijing drew fire for its tepid initial response to a Chinese skipper’s killing of a Korean Coast Guard officer during a raid on his boat in December. Anti-China rallies ensued, hurling eggs and burning Chinese flags in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul.

“The Korean government would have been able to prevent such a tragedy If it had taken decisive action against the illicit operators over the past few years based on strategic thinking rather than assuming a submissive stance toward China’s high-handed attitude,” said Kim Ki-soo, a senior researcher at Sejong Institute, a private think tank.

Amid sour popular sentiment, the Korean government soon relaxed regulations on the use of firearms by maritime police personnel in case of urgency. It also set aside 932.4 billion won ($810 million) until 2016 to upgrade their crackdown capabilities.

In May, the National Assembly passed legislation for tougher punishment of illicit operations within the Korean exclusive economic zone. The new law calls for doubling the maximum fine for unauthorized fishing to 200 million won and bars them from reclaiming their confiscated equipment.

The two countries also agreed in June to boost cooperation to contain rampant poaching through a joint consultative body.

Seoul officials acknowledge their Chinese counterparts’ difficulty in keeping tight reins on the fishermen simply because there are too many. Around 30,000 fishermen are estimated to launch 10,000 boats into Korean waters every year.

“We understand how hard it should be to control that many people all the time no matter how harsh penalties the Chinese government enforces ― because it’s their bread and butter that maintains their living,” a senior government official said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

“But the same time we can’t help but keep pressing China so as to alleviate infuriated citizens at home. It’s a tricky question for both of us.”

Meanwhile, Korea and China are joining hands to rein in Tokyo’s intensifying territorial assertion by filing a common formal claim to the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

A war of nerves erupted in May when Tokyo falsely declared that the multinational body had recognized around 310,000 square kilometers as its seabed, which Seoul and Beijing billed a “groundless ambition to maximize maritime profits.”

The archipelago nation is at loggerheads with China over the islands of Senkaku in the East China Sea. It has for decades insisted on control over the Korean islets of Dokdo.

But the partnership appears prone to breakup given China’s juxtaposed claim over Korea’s southernmost island of Ieodo, which lies in the intersection of the two countries’ EEZs. They were embroiled in a spat after the initial U.N. CLCS report in 2009.

Escalating diplomatic friction between Beijing and the Philippines over the South China Sea have also been giving weight to a call for an expansion in Korea’s naval force and greater dependence on its traditional ally ― the United States.

Though China has become a possible match for American might, its growing assertiveness has somewhat weakened its own geopolitical position and benefited its archrival, said Bruce Jones, a researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington and director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University.

“It seems to me that China has overplayed its hand in its own region, causing doubt about its ‘peaceful rise.’ As a result, countries are looking to the U.S. for reassurance,” he told The Korea Herald via e-mail.

Social issues

Other hot potatoes include social issues originating from a recent series of violent crimes and voice phishing chiefly committed by ethnic Koreans from China.

Public anxiety flared up in April after a brutal murder case in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, shook the country. Korean
Suzanne Scholte (third from right), chairwoman of the U.S-based North Korea Freedom Coalition, former lawmaker Park Sun-young (second from right) and other activists rally in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul on April 30 demanding that Beijing stop deporting North Korean defectors. (Yonhap News)
Suzanne Scholte (third from right), chairwoman of the U.S-based North Korea Freedom Coalition, former lawmaker Park Sun-young (second from right) and other activists rally in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul on April 30 demanding that Beijing stop deporting North Korean defectors. (Yonhap News)
-Chinese Wu Yuanchuan was convicted of murdering a 28-year-old woman and dismembering her body. He was sentenced to death at a district court.

Prosecutors have since detected some 130 Chinese of Korean descent who falsified their identities and reentered the country after being deported for committing a crime or visa violations.

“When this kind of serious crime case happens, Korean people tend to associate this case, or this person, with the entire ethnic group,” said Seong Sang-hwan, a professor at the National Center for Multicultural Education at Seoul National University.

The amount of financial fraud has also shot up over the phone or online messengers.

Scammers, increasingly traced to networks in China, masquerade as acquaintances, police or bank officials to siphon off bank accounts.

The damage from phone fraud topped 200 billion won between 2008 and 2010, prosecution data shows. A bulk of the victims were the elderly.

“Anti” sentiment toward each other peaked in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. On the Seoul leg of the torch relay, Chinese students clashed with protesters and engaged in mob violence, notably in the lobby of Seoul Plaza Hotel.

A Korean broadcaster’s leak of footage of the opening ceremony rehearsals triggered a backlash among Chinese, who later cheered for nations competing against South Korea.

Experts say that the two countries should not twin their expanding ties and issues that emerge from the sidelines. They liken all diplomatic relations to a sine curve with ceaseless ups and downs.

“After all, the two governments should keep up dialogue and establish standards for dealing with certain matters,” Kang at HUFS said.

“When it comes to criminal cases, they should pursue cooperation in investigation and jurisdiction to strictly handle serious crimes. That way, they can facilitate extradition and information sharing.”

In an interview with The Korea Herald, Zhang Tingyan, vice president of the China-South Korea Friendship Association, called on the two Asian powers to seek ways to foster a future-oriented relationship rather than dwelling on the past and politicking at home.

“I personally believe that these issues are secondary, not mainstream ones, in the bilateral relationship,” said Zhang who was Beijing’s first ambassador to Seoul from 1992 to 1998.

“Through dialogue, we need to broaden our mutual understanding and deepen our trust and friendship. Then, we can gradually resolve them.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (
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