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(News Focus) Challenges remain as S. Korea, China celebrate 20th year of diplomatic ties
SEOUL, Dec. 30 (Yonhap) -- Economic and trade ties between South Korea and China have developed rapidly over the countries' past 20 years of diplomatic relations, but their diverging political interests will be difficult to resolve as long as security concerns remain on the Korean Peninsula, experts said Friday.

   South Korea and China established diplomatic relations in August 1992, paving the way for close cooperation and exchanges in trade, culture and other aspects of society. China is South Korea's largest trade partner, while their geographical proximity to each other has spurred large numbers of tourists, students, businesspeople and other visitors to travel between the two countries.

   The past 20 years, however, have also been marked by disputes over history, violent clashes over illegal fishing in the Yellow Sea, and most notably, South Korean protests over Beijing's political support for North Korea.


China reportedly fears a mass influx of North Korean refugees in the event of a regime collapse in Pyongyang, and seeks to maintain the North as a buffer zone against the U.S.-allied South. Analysts said China made its position especially clear when it refused to condemn North Korea for its sinking of a South Korean warship and shelling of a southern border island last year. The two attacks left a total of 50 South Koreans dead.

   "Just as China's reaction to (the two attacks) shows, there is a need to consider whether we have possibly viewed South Korea-China relations in an excessively positive light, and whether (the pursuit of) our national interest vis-a-vis our ties with China has not overly focused on the economic aspects," said Chung Jae-ho, a professor of foreign policy at Seoul National University.

   "Summing up the two countries' relations in light of the 20th anniversary, our economic ties are still hot, diplomacy is lukewarm, and security ties are cold."

   The key to strengthening diplomacy and security ties between the two countries lies in South Korea's relationship with North Korea, according to Moon Heung-ho, head of the Institute of Chinese Studies at Seoul's Hanyang University.


"As long as China doesn't abandon North Korea, it won't be easy to deepen and further develop South Korea's ties with China under the currently strained inter-Korean relations," he said.

   Analysts also said the Seoul government should seek to strike a balance between its alliance with Washington and its evolving ties with Beijing.

   "The Obama administration in the U.S. recently declared its intention to expand and strengthen its influence in East Asia, which can be interpreted as a way to keep China's rise in check," Moon said. "As long as South Korea and the U.S. maintain their alliance, if relations cool between the U.S. and China, South Korea's ties with China will be difficult to improve."

   Chung agreed with Moon's remarks, saying Seoul should "not be overly obsessed with its alliance with Washington, but also place an emphasis on its sovereignty and defense capabilities."