Seoul is pressing once again to bolster its relationship with China after North Korea’s attack on a small South Korean island in the Yellow Sea last month, in what appears to be a retreat from its defense-heavy approach.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has announced that it is increasing its annual China-related budget next year to 3 billion won ($2.6 million), a nearly eight-fold increase from this year's 390 million won ($340,000). The government is hoping that the increase will send a clear message to China that after a period of tense relations – which included a series of naval drills that irked Beijing – it is ready to talk.
The new budget will cover task forces that tackle anti-Korean sentiment in China and a new China Center that will bring together academics and politicians to craft stronger diplomatic policies. Additionally, a bilateral strategic dialogue between the two nations will advance from the vice-ministerial to the ministerial level.
"For our country, relations with China have been taking an increasingly important place in security and stability on the Korean Peninsula and our prosperity," Yonhap News Agency quoted Seoul’s foreign minister, Kim Sung-hwan, as saying at the opening of the China Center yesterday. "Close cooperation between the two countries is essential on issues related to North Korea and nuclear and other North Korea issues."
President Lee first worked to improve ties with China in 2008 when he met with China’s President Hu Jintao and declared a “cooperative strategic partnership” between the two countries. Korea's influence with China has suffered in the past two years, however, as the Lee administration prioritized strong ties with the United States over its Asian neighbor. Lee’s move away from the so-called “Sunshine Policy” of his predecessors, which favored engagement and the giving of aid to North Korea, also strained relations.
South Koreans learned just how tenuous this partnership was after the recent provocations from the North.
“With that naming of the new relationship, people in South Korea believed that China would be more forthcoming and assertive in reining in North Korea, particularly with respect to the North’s nuclear program,” says Chung Chong-Wook, who served as South Korea’s ambassador to China between 1996 and 1998. “But when the Cheonan incident happened [the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March, which the South attributed to North Korea], China’s attitude was far contrary to the public’s expectation in South Korea. China embraced North Korea all the way, and that was quite a shock to South Korea.”
The sinking of the Cheonan, along with last month’s bombing of Yeonpyeong Island by North Korea, which killed two South Korean soldiers and two civilians, has forced the South to reevaluate their strategies in the region.
“Under current circumstances, it seems we focus too much on military measures,” said Choi Kang, a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, speaking at a conference hosted by the East Asia Institute yesterday. The IFANS is a research organization affiliated with the Foreign Ministry. “We need to consider engagement and other peaceful means as well. This will serve as the foundation for our relationship with China and other regional powers.”
Still, on Thursday, Seoul announced that it would conduct artillery drills from Yeonpyeong Island sometime in the next few days. The drills would be similar to the ones that preceded the Yeonpyeong attack in November.
This week, China announced that a recent meeting between State Councilor Dai Bingguo and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il was fruitful. Under Chinese pressure, North Korea agreed to attend emergency discussions between envoys to the six-party talks with the hope of diffusing tensions on the peninsula.
While South Korea and the United States rejected China’s proposal for the discussions, the development reveals just how integral China is to politics on the peninsula.
Former Ambassador Chung argues that it’s only a matter of time before South Korea will have to engage with China and the North in negotiations.
“I do believe that there is a huge room for diplomacy to work here,” says Chung. “And more importantly, there is no other alternative. Certainly we all have a great deal at stake to see diplomacy to work here. I won’t be surprised that if in a few months' time, North Korea comes to the negotiating table. There is no other way out.”
He is cautious, however, in his assessment of the immediate impact of South Korea's funding increase for diplomatic initiatives with China. "I welcome the increased focus on China,” Chung says. “But we have to see what that means as far as specific policies and impact. Increasing budget is only one side. And there are many, many others that the government has to do to make China be more forthcoming and working out various problems on the peninsula, including the nuclear issues.”