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2008/09/04 11:28 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 19 (September 4, 2008)


The South Korea-China Seoul Summit and North Korea

By Choon Heum Choi, Ph.D.

  Senior Research Fellow, Korea Institute for National Unification

Only one day after the closing ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, China's President Hu Jintao visited the Republic of Korea (ROK). His two-day state visit to the ROK at the invitation of President Lee Myung-bak began Aug. 25, 2008, when he held talks with President Lee at the ROK's presidential office. It was the third Lee-Hu Summit since President Lee took office this year. It is, indeed, rare for the heads of two states to meet three times within three months.

   Right before President Lee's inauguration ceremony in Seoul, China had suggested that Beijing wanted to have a "strategic cooperative partnership" with Seoul. During the first Beijing summit in May this year, the two countries agreed to upgrade their bilateral relationship from a "comprehensive cooperative partnership" to a "strategic cooperative partnership."

   At the August Seoul Summit, the two heads of state had in-depth exchanges of views on ways and means to reach a strategic bilateral partnership on major regional and international issues of mutual concern. As a result, the ROK and the Peoples' Republic of China (PRC) issued a joint communique, which will be recorded as a milestone in the history of South Korea-China relations.

Transforming Comprehensive Relations into Strategic Relations

Why was the Seoul summit so important that it will make history? The Seoul summit set the future direction and vision of their strategic cooperation in many categories, as follows:

   First, the Seoul summit put forth agendas and agreements to push their relationship into a strategic one by setting up political and military-security dialogues while comprehensively enlarging bilateral cooperation in other areas. The joint communique envisages no fewer than 34 ways of cooperation in four categories: politics, economy, human resources and people-to-people exchanges, and regional/international areas. As President Lee said in a press conference, Korea and China agreed to expand bilateral relations, which have so far centered on economic and cultural exchanges, to the political and security sectors.

   In fact, bilateral ties -- with the exception of the military-security area -- have achieved rapid progress since the two countries established diplomatic relations 16 years ago. The remarkable record came from economic cooperation, which has been the foundation for developing bilateral relations. ROK-PRC bilateral trade volume reached nearly US$160 billion last year, a 32-fold increase compared to 16 years ago. The two heads of state agreed to increase the annual trade volume to $200 billion by 2010, two years ahead of the previous target year. The two countries agreed to strengthen cooperation in such key areas as telecommunications, energy, banking, finance, logistics and environmental protection.

   In addition, people-to-people exchanges, including tourism, were also on the agenda. At present, more than 6 million people shuttle between the two countries every year. To further people-to-people exchanges, the two countries agreed on youth exchanges every year to facilitate their understandings of each other. In order to deepen tourism, they designated 2010, the year of Shanghai World Expo, "Visit China Year," and 2012, the year of Yeosu World Expo, "Visit Korea Year."

   Second, the two sides agreed to hold the first ROK-PRC high-level strategic meeting between the two foreign ministers this year, as well as stimulate exchanges between ranking defense officials, improve hotlines, and seek military exchanges and cooperation. Setting up ministerial-level dialogue like the "U.S.-China Strategic Dialogue" is very important in molding and deepening the strategic partnership between Seoul and Beijing. The two countries will be able to strengthen political and military-security communications. Through the Korea-China Strategic Dialogue, the two countries are expected to be able to frustrate the North Korea's bold and fruitless attempts to threaten the South Korea militarily in the near future. This mechanism also will be conducive to the maintenance of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, as well as Northeast Asia.

   Third, China expressed its support for South Korea's policy toward North Korea on the basis of mutual benefits and common prosperity. President Lee advocated for strengthening the ROK-USA alliance regardless of China, and the "Denuclearization, Opening, 3,000" posture toward North Korea regardless of Pyongyang. At first, China had been doubtful and even suspicious of President Lee's policies toward North Korea and the U.S. Right after Seoul expressed its willingness to accept Beijing's offer to have a strategic cooperative tie with Seoul, however, China began to understand South Korea's real intentions toward China and North Korea. During the visit of China's Vice President Shi Jinping to North Korea, he emphasized the continuation of dialogue and contact between the two Koreas. In the joint communique, China emphasized that it would continue to support peaceful Korean unification. If North Korea's nuclear issue is solved smoothly, China wants to participate in future Korea Peace Talks and have a role in that dialogue.

   Fourth, on the North's nuclear issue, South Korea and China agreed to reinforce communication and cooperation within the framework of the six-party talks, and to push for implementing the second phase actions of the six-party talks. This means that the two countries indirectly demand that Washington and Pyongyang solve the thorny problems between them, namely the U.S. demand for North Korea's nuclear verification process and North Korea's demand to be removed from the U.S. list of terrorism-sponsoring states. So far, South Korea and China have worked together to solve North Korea's nuclear issue in the spirit of problem-solving and goal-oriented cooperation.

   Fifth, the two countries agreed to enhance coordination and cooperation in regional and international affairs, especially in international human rights issues. This agreement will make Seoul and Beijing facilitate negotiations on China's policy of sending North Korean refugees back to the North. China has been blamed by the international community for badly handling human rights issues, including North Korea's refugee issue. Right after the Olympic flame went out in Beijing, China expressed its willingness to solve human rights issues through dialogue and cooperation during the ROK-PRC Seoul summit of August 2008.

Ways to Escape Pyongyang's Economic and Security Hardship

The ROK-PRC Seoul summit was held the same month like the ROK-U.S. Seoul summit. U.S. President George W. Bush visited South Korea to hold talks with South Korea's President Lee in what was expected to be his last trip to Seoul before he leaves office. While discussing the North Korea nuclear issue, President Bush vowed to reaffirm the strengthening of the ROK-U.S. strategic alliance, transforming the current relationship into a strategically value-oriented one. President Lee welcomed President Bush's posture. In contrast, the ROK-PRC Seoul summit drew a picture of "ROK-PRC strategic cooperative partnership" as a strategically goal-oriented one. It was a natural and correct direction since China and South Korea have shared such common goals as the development of economic cooperation, maintenance of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula (including North Korea) and in Northeast Asia, as well as the peaceful unification of their motherlands.

   South Korea has managed to put its relationships with the U.S. and China on the right track so that it will be able to deal with North Korea with transparency, consistence, and effectiveness. Even though maintaining a strategic partnership with China and enhancing the alliance system with the U.S. do not necessarily conflict with each other, South Korea needs to have far-reaching, correct strategy and skillful diplomacy toward the two powers.

   In the past, Seoul had focused on improvement with Pyongyang at the cost of Seoul-Washington and Seoul-Beijing relations. Pyongyang has attempted to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington, as well as between Seoul and Beijing. It will become more difficult for the North to drive a wedge between ROU.S. relations. Why didn't Pyongyang criticize the establishment of the ROK-PRC strategic partnership officially so far? To the North, blaming China publicly means rejecting China's assistance, politically and economically.

   As mentioned earlier, the Lee Myung-bak administration has emphasized having a better relationship with North Korea on the basis of mutual benefits and common prosperity. Seoul has supported the increased development of Pyongyang-Beijing ties and declared its willingness to cooperate with Pyongyang, regardless of the North Korean military's killing of a South Korean woman while touring Mt Kumgang. Furthermore, during his state visit to South Korea in August this year, President Hu frequently reviewed China's experience and achievements since it adopted the policy of reform and opening 30 years ago. He also mentioned that China will seek development based on peacefulness, opening and cooperation, which is almost identical to the ROK's posture toward the North. In addition, the Bush administration has tried to solve the North Korean nuclear issue diplomatically.

   In fact, all of the surrounding countries have tried to have better relationships with North Korea, which reduces the North's regime instability. At present, the world's economy is looking gloomier and sicker by the day with oil and crop prices at their highest in more than two decades. To make matters worse, the economic situation in North Korea has been getting worse. There has been a widespread perception that Pyongyang has seldom listened to advice from Seoul and Beijing on reform and opening. Extraordinarily ill-advised policies that Kim Jong-il has adopted in the past 10 years have kept North Koreans in poverty and in an abnormal country.

   In order to escape from its economic and security hardship, Pyongyang only needs to reconsider its posture toward South Korea as well as the U.S. Indeed, North Korea needs to facilitate these good opportunities in which South Korea and China have promised to develop their relationship with the North.