China's stray ship fails to torpedo better relations with S. Korea

South Korea and China are acting more like good neighbors -- despite having no diplomatic relations and diametrically opposed political outlooks. The amicable settlement of last weekend's incident, in which a Chinese torpedo boat drifted into South Korean territorial waters after a mutiny aboard, illustrates how far the two nations have come in recent years.

After working through the American Embassy in Seoul, the two governments contacted each other directly through their offices in Hong Kong. On Tuesday the Koreans received a Chinese apology.

Today the South Korean Navy plans to tow the boat and its crew -- including the mutineers and the bodies of their victims -- out into the Yellow Sea to a midpoint between China and South Korea, and hand them over to the Chinese Navy.

The quick resolution of the incident underscores the gradual improvement in Korean-Chinese relations -- a process that was nudged along in May 1983, when the two countries reached an agreement to return a Chinese airliner and its passengers that had been hijacked to Korea. A team of Chinese negotiators flew directly to Seoul to work out the return, while the Korean government treated the passengers to an extensive tour of the city and showered them with gifts.

The good will was marred later when the hijackers, convicted in Seoul, were allowed to leave for Taiwan.

But in the intervening years, trade has quietly mushroomed between the two neighboring countries. Last year, bilateral trade booked through Hong Kong doubled to $345 million. The Korean government won't say what the total trade figure is.

Government officials have more or less admitted that ships are now plying directly between Chinese and South Korean ports, with third-country bookings a mere formality. There are also reports -- difficult to confirm -- that Korean ships now call directly in Chinese ports.

The countries are natural trading partners. Resource-poor South Korea is particularly interested in Chinese mineral wealth, oil, and coal. China has shown interest in Korean manufactured goods, including electronics. The two countries, separated by just a few hundred miles of water, could save substantially on freight costs.

South Korea has bought Chinese coal, yarns, fibers, glass, chemicals, and fabrics, while China has bought steel pipe, fertilizer, machinery, paper, fabrics, and electronic goods from South Korea.

There have also been widespread reports that Korea is now importing Chinese petroleum. An oil company executive in Korea denied those reports, however. He said that his company had reached agreement with China on several occasions to purchase oil, only to have the Chinese pull out when it was reported in the press.

Both countries, in fact, appear anxious to avoid publicity. North Korea is the main problem, because of its importance to China's security. Open, close relations between China and South Korea would be a serious embarrassment for the North, and might force it to seek closer relations with Moscow, something China would go to great lengths to avoid. South Korea had been careful not to embarrass China so far.

Prominent Korean businessman have recently visited China, and Chinese trade officials are reported to have quietly come to South Korea -- but all of this has taken place secretly. Only the exchange of basketball, tennis, and other sports teams has received public attention.

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