China treads a wary path between the two Koreas

July 23, 2014 by Brendan O'Reilly

North Korea’s future is China, China’s future is South Korea”. So goes the popular saying in China, neatly encapsulating the way that many Chinese feel about their near neighbours. In the Chinese imagination, the divided Korean peninsula represents both China’s difficult past and popular aspirations for China’s future. The political, economic and cultural dimensions of China’s relationship with the two Koreas have enormous implications for the entire region.

On the political front, Beijing is making great efforts to woo Seoul away from Washington’s orbit. Chinese president Xi Jinping has met with his South Korean counterpart Park Geun-hye a total of five times since they both came to power last year. Chinese vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin said Xi’s most recent visit was meant to “advance the bilateral relationship, boost cooperation in all fields and contribute to each other’s development, as well as regional and world peace, stability and prosperity.”

Behind the rhetoric, the reality is that Beijing and Seoul have been pushed closer by shared concerns over perceived Japanese militarism. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has succeeded in his push to “reinterpret” Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution to allow for a more aggressive military posture. Abe justified the move as a defensive measure: “By being fully prepared to deal with any situation, Japan can foil any attempt to wage war against Japan.” US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel praised the new Japanese policy, saying it would allow Tokyo to “engage in a wider range of operations” and “make the U.S.-Japan alliance even more effective”.

China and South Korea – historical victims of Japanese imperialism and current territorial disputants with Tokyo – were less optimistic regarding the Japanese policy change. Ju Chul-ki, South Korea’s senior presidential secretary for foreign affairs, was quick to point out that the Chinese and South Korean presidents “agreed that it is worrying that Japan’s attitude toward revising history continues as it even seeks to expand its right to collective self-defence.”

Elizabeth F Larus, professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the University of Mary Washington, told China Outlook that China is seeking greater strategic space by reaching out to Seoul: “China’s increasingly warm ties [with South Korea] have geopolitical significance. Since former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the US pivot to Asia in late 2011, China’s leaders have accused the US of trying to contain China by engaging China’s neighbours in the region, including South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

“If you look at a map of China’s maritime coast”, she added, “you can see that the US has allies strung all along that coast. So, Chinese leaders feel justified in their claim that the US is trying to contain China by building a stronger presence near China. Of the four aforementioned Asian countries, China has the best chance of pulling South Korea into its orbit.”

Chung-in Moon, professor of political science at Yonsei University and former ambassador for international security of the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, sees the regional situation in a similar light: “China wants to loosen the ROK-Japan-US triangular cooperation by cementing bilateral ties with Seoul. …US pivot to Asia might be the most important driving factor… Japan’s quest of a normal state has also pushed China to cooperate with South Korea.”

Of course, while Chinese leaders seek to drive a wedge in America’s East Asian alliance system, Beijing overtures to Seoul complicate China’s own longstanding alliance with isolationist North Korea. Many observers of regional affairs find it notable that while Xi Jinping has met with South Korea’s leader five times since coming to power, he has yet to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

Kim Hankwon, the director of Seoul’s Center for Regional Studies at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies recently told CNN: “”Most North Korean provocations hurt China’s military and security interests…The US has increased its military and security influence over northeast Asia – their rationale was North Korea’s nuclear threats.” Hankwon also said that “North Korea is worried it can be isolated in northeast Asia” and has therefore been reaching out to Russia.

According to New Focus International, an internal memo from Kim Jong Un’s Korean Worker’s Party attacks China’s foreign policy and internal politics, exhorting cadres to “Abandon the Chinese dream”, saying “China is a bad neighbour that slanders even our nuclear self-defence capabilities, by taking sides with the US….In the past, the Chinese Communist Party was in revolutionary fellowship, by sharing in the anti-Japanese resistance traditions of the great marshals Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. But today’s Chinese Communist Party is a Xi Jinping style party of selfishness, pursuing reforms and opening, and therefore choosing to put money before ideology.”

In recent months there have been additional signs of deterioration in the relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing. According to South Korea’s The Choson Ilbo, China has halted shipments of oil to North Korea for nearly half a year, and now refuses to accept North Korean currency for cross-border trade. Meanwhile, the North Korean National Defence Commission has strongly condemned Beijing’s growing ties with South Korea: “Some spineless countries are blindly following the stinking bottom of the US, also struggling to embrace [South Korean President] Park Geun-hye.”

While Beijing’s geo-strategic interests in the Korean peninsula are torn between a historic alliance with Pyongyang and a desire to court Seoul, its economic interests are quite straightforward. China is South Korea’s largest trade partner, while South Korea is the third largest source of foreign trade for China’s expanding economy. During Xi’s recent visit to Seoul, the two sides agreed to conduct direct trading of their two currencies, bypassing the US dollar and strengthening the Chinese yuan’s international position.

Professor Moon of Yonsei University believes Seoul’s strengthening ties with Beijing are driven by economic interest: “China is now the South Korea’s number one trading partner. Its excessive economic dependence on China has been the key factor in promoting its ties with China”.

However, Professor Moon also sees risks and contradictions apparent in these growing ties: “South Korea is sandwiched between China and the US. It has been playing a double dipping game of seeking security interests with the US, while pursuing economic interests with China… Seoul must pursue a policy of separating politics from economy. But it won’t be easy, as evidenced by the US opposition to South Korea’s efforts to cooperate with China on the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The only way to get away from the dilemma is to improve inter-Korean relations, which would reduce Seoul’s military dependence on the alliance with the US.” The AIIB is seen in Washington as a potential rival to the World Bank.

China exerts great economic and political influence over the Korean peninsula, whereas Seoul has huge cultural sway over China. No country has captured the popular imagination of Chinese youth like South Korea. The Korean drama My Love from the Star about a powerful alien who falls in love with a Korean woman, has become the most watched soap opera in the history of Chinese internet portal Baidu. Episodes of the series have been watched over four billion times in China. Meanwhile, concerts of Korean pop groups have led to near-riots in Chinese cities.

In fact, Korea’s growing pop culture influence in China, known as the ‘Korean Wave’ (韓流), comes in part from a concerted government effort. The state-owned Export-Import Bank of Korea purposely loans money to food and entertainment firms in order to spread influence in Asia. As CEO Kim Yong-hwan explains “We believe Korean dramas, pop songs and traditional dishes have huge growth potential. Exporters of such cultural content deserve more investment and financial support…In this age of globalization, Korea is being understood through its pop culture. It should be carefully fostered and developed..We plan to select about 10 promising firms and nurture them into globally competitive players. We need to make hallyu (“Korean Wave”) sustainable and more globally accepted.”

The effort appears to be paying off in China, both literally and figuratively. Former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao praised the “Korean Wave” sensation, saying “Between China and South Korea is a longstanding history of cultural exchange, this has benefits for the spirit of communication, mutual understanding, and deepening friendship between the two countries’ peoples…. the Chinese government considers the hallyu phenomenon to be a vital contribution towards mutual cultural exchanges flowing between China and South Korea.”

Why has Korean popular culture so resonated with Chinese audiences? According to Jung-Bong Choi, assistant professor of Cinema Studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, a shared cultural heritage and Chinese government censorship play significant roles: “China is still unable to produce something that can be comparable to American products or Japanese products, Chinese people, with their rising income levels, want to watch and consume more than what’s available in their TV programmes… China’s cultural sphere is heavily governed by the state which is, I think, slightly out of sync with people’s desires. So they want something that pleases their own aesthetics and cultural values, not from China and not from Japan…and not from America. So where do they go? It’s Korean products.”

As strong cultural and economic forces draw South Korea and China closer, the political sphere remains much more complicated. Seoul will have to navigate carefully its political and economic relationships with Washington, Beijing and Tokyo. Meanwhile, Beijing’s best possible eventual outcome may be Korean unification, drawing a reunited Korea back into the Sinosphere. In the meantime, trade will boom, Chinese office workers will continue to watch My Love from the Star on their Samsung phones, and the two Koreas, armed with Chinese and American-made weaponry, will stare each other down across the world’s most militarized frontier.

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