South Koreans fall for all things Chinese

South Korea and China renewed diplomatic ties a decade ago, ending years of hostility. Now, culture is catching up.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Sogang University junior Hwang Ji Soo is looking for a way to give herself an edge in South Korea's cutthroat job market.

With an eye to joining a public-relations company or marketing firm after graduation, Ms. Hwang recently signed up for a Chinese-language course at a language school in Seoul.

"I think that if I study Chinese now, it will make me more competitive later," she says. "People say that it is not enough to know only English anymore. You have to know Chinese, too."

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Ten years after establishing diplomatic relations and ending decades of hostility, cultural ties are blooming between South Korea and its communist neighbor, China.

In the long run, warming ties could give leverage to Seoul in its relations with the US and Tokyo, analysts say.

South Korea's burgeoning interest in all things Chinese is a sign of a long-delayed normalization of cultural ties, which existed for centuries before the cold war, says Ha Yong Chool, a professor of international relations at Seoul National University.

"We've had a long, traditional fascination with China," Ha says. "The cold war was a missing link in the historical trend. It was an aberration."'

The trend is spurred by China's recent entry into the World Trade Organization, its winning bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, and a renewed curiosity about its long-feared but admired neighbor.

Career-minded students are lining up to attend Chinese study-abroad programs. Major South Korean corporations are scrambling to deepen their foothold in the China market.

And South Korean travelers to China last year totaled 1.3 million, more than twice the level recorded four years earlier and exceeding visitors to perennial favorite destination Japan for the first time.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are showing growing curiosity about Korean culture.

The South Korean pop-culture boom currently sweeping through Asia has touched down in China in a big way, with Korean pop singers winning devoted followings, even if their potential commercial clout is undermined by rampant CD pirating.

This year, there will be a flurry of additional exchanges between the two sides related to the June World Cup soccer championships, which are being co-hosted by South Korea and Japan, and the 10th anniversary of Seoul and Beijing's establishment of diplomatic relations, which will be observed in August.

During the World Cup, the Chinese national team will play all of its first-round matches in Korea. The matches are expected to draw not only Korean soccer fans but up to 100,000 tourists from China, too.

China is already South Korea's third-largest trading partner, after the US and Japan, and is its second-largest export market.

Hyundai Motor is one of the few Korean corporate giants that haven't yet launched a major offensive in the China market. Hampered by import quotas and high tariffs, Hyundai shipped a mere 2,500 vehicles to China in 2001.

But the company recently announced plans to invest $250 million in a joint-venture manufacturing plant near Beijing, to be operated with Beijing Automotive Industry Holding Co.

"China will be a crucial market for Hyundai Motor Co., and it's a market that we will have to build in the years to come," says Hyundai spokesman Jake Jang.

Over the long haul, South Korea's fast-evolving relations with China could significantly change the dynamics of northeast Asian security relations by allowing Seoul to exploit its ties to Beijing as leverage when dealing with its allies in Washington and Tokyo, observers say.

But for the time being, warmer Seoul–Beijing ties aren't likely to change South Korea's firm commitment to close relations with Washington and Tokyo.

The US military still maintains some 37,000 troops in South Korea to provide a vital deterrent against potential North Korean adventurism.

Moreover, observers say that lingering Korean resentment over Japan's imperial past should not obscure the fact that Seoul and Tokyo remain close allies within Asia, and that they indeed share many of the same cultural affinities – in both traditional and pop-culture – that Korea's new Sinophiles love to cite with China.

Diplomatic exchanges between Seoul and Beijing have noticeably increased in recent years, Seoul National University's Ha says. But, he adds: "On a regional and structural security level, there are limits" to how quickly South Korean-Chinese diplomatic relations can evolve.

In the meantime, Sogang University student Hwang Ji Soo's reasons for studying Chinese at Koryo China Center come as no surprise to Koryo General Manager Lee Young Joon.

His school expects its enrollment to surge by 70 percent this year.

"In the past, people used to think: 'Important things will happen in China eventually,' " Lee says.

"But now these things are actually happening, and that has people more excited about China's future."

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