China’s South Korean Future

DENVER – The so-called six-party talks – the on again, off again international mechanism by which the United States, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan negotiate with North Korea over its nuclear aspirations – are often cited as an example of multilateral diplomacy. In fact, the talks have served as a platform for addressing a host of issues that range far beyond the North Korean nuclear problem, in the process nurturing interlocking, interrelated bilateral relationships in the region.

For the Chinese, in particular, the talks have been an opportunity to get to know some of their neighbors better – and they have certainly helped Sino-US relations. But perhaps the key bilateral relationship that has been strengthened by the six-party mechanism is that between China and South Korea. This will be on full display at the end of June, when South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, visits Beijing to meet China’s new president, Xi Jinping.

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China and South Korea need no introduction to each other, of course – such is the burden of history in the region. But their relationship is about to change, thanks in part to the patterns of official cooperation that the six-party talks created.

If the Chinese are successful in shifting away from North Korea, they have to pivot somewhere. And that place is South Korea. After all, China needs a sustainable relationship with the neighboring Korean Peninsula.

The bilateral relationship has grown closer in recent decades, owing to active exploration of the Chinese market by South Korea’s large industrial conglomerates. Today, their bilateral trade dwarfs that between China and North Korea. Yet the relationship has always had a limited political dynamic. Given China’s close relationship with the North, its leaders have never warmed to South Korea’s democratically elected governments, whether left or right.

But China is about to experience something new: South Korea’s soft power, personified by Park, who represents a center-right coalition, but defies the usual political labels. Indeed, she was elected with a curious blend of support: right-wing backers of her father, Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1961 to 1979, and many other Koreans, including some on the left, who wanted someone different from the usual blue-suited, white-shirted Korean politician.

Park is tough-minded on national security, but takes up new issues and agendas with a refreshing combination of intellectual energy and personal calm. She listens carefully and pauses before responding. Moreover, rumor has it that she is considering delivering her speech in Beijing in Mandarin. Such a performance is likely to resonate not only with China’s leaders, but also with ordinary citizens.

South Korea’s soft power is well deserved and extends across Asia. Its cultural and scientific achievements are increasingly influential throughout the world. Even when its relations with Japan are difficult, Japanese tourists flock to Seoul to shop and tour the studios that produce the country’s extraordinarily successful television dramas. Park’s visit to China will give her country’s soft power a human face.

No new agreements or other diplomatic breakthroughs are likely to be announced during Park’s visit. The Chinese will look at her carefully, and may well be sizing her up as an immediate neighbor should North Korea persist on its current course to total isolation and oblivion.

The Chinese know that Park values her relationship with the United States, but they also understand that she, like most mature South Korean leaders, desires a solid relationship with China as well – one based (unlike in centuries past) on mutual respect. China’s leaders will also be interested in her thinking on Japan, particularly given the inclinations of her father, who served as an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.

Park’s visit to China comes at a time when China’s new leadership is grappling with problems near and far. Its reluctant pivot away from North Korea, however discernible, should not be regarded as a fait accompli; nor should it be explained away as the result of momentary frustration with the adolescent behavior of Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s boy leader.

Over the centuries, the Chinese have learned a thing or two about when a dynasty’s days are numbered. China, too, is developing in ways that will be far easier to assess in retrospect than they are today. And, if South Korea’s own recent past can be any guide, China’s economic transformation is likely to be followed by political and social changes of equally dramatic proportions.

Thus, how the Chinese receive Park may turn out to be less a reflection of change in South Korea than a reflection of change in the People’s Republic – an issue that goes to the heart of China’s identity and mission in the modern world.