Korea's New Administration and Challenges for China's Relations with the Korean Peninsula*

Article excerpt

In a region as fluid and complex as Northeast Asia, Lee Myung-bak's election to the presidency of the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) will prove to be quite significant. The return of a conservative leader is an important change for Korean politics, and a new factor for regional relationships as well. During the previous two administrations of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, ROK relations with China kept growing rapidly. Both these presidents adopted a "sunshine" policy of reconciliation, cooperation, and peace toward the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea), especially against the backdrop of the reemerging Korean nuclear crisis. Chinese and South Korean policies largely converged on engaging with Pyongyang and inducing it to denuclearize and to open up. That approach to a great extent helped soften the Bush administration's hard-line stance and hostile policy toward the DPRK. Except for the (unnecessary) controversy over the Koguryo issue, a question of ancient history, that somehow disrupted the China- ROK relationship during 2004-2005, other aspects of the relationship mostly went very well. With a new Lee administration, will that trend continue? Will Seoul and Beijing continue to work together well to denuclearize the Korean peninsula?

The Bilateral Tango

China is, relatively speaking, unfamiliar with the entrepreneur- turned politician, Lee Myung-bak, who is a former CEO of Hyundai Construction and Engineering and a former mayor of Seoul. For China, what is at stake is a smooth transition of relations with the ROK under a new Korean administration, with the maintenance of continuity and stability. In mid-January 2008, Beijing dispatched Wang Yi, the number-two person in its foreign ministry, to Seoul in the capacity of special envoy of the Chinese government to meet with President-elect Lee and his presidential transition team. The chief purpose of Wang's trip was to become familiar with Lee and his policy thinking as well as to make preparations for a good post-Roh bilateral relationship.

Wang Yi passed on President Hu Jintao's congratulations and greetings to Lee. Likewise, President-elect Lee sent his special envoy, former chairwoman of the Grand National Party Park Geun-hye, to Beijing. She carried a letter from Lee to Hu. The Chinese side received her well and President Hu met her in person. The visits were in hope of paving the way for an orderly transition of the China-ROK relationship.

China and South Korea are two countries that are becoming increasingly interdependent. This complex interdependence has developed over the past sixteen years since the formal establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992, years that witnessed conspicuous growth in every aspect of their relations. In 2004, China overtook the United States and Japan and became the ROK's largest trading partner, while the ROK became China's thirdbiggest trading partner. According to South Korean government statistics, in 2006 the two-way trade volume exceeded $134 billion, a tremendous growth from $6.3 billion in 1992. In contrast, ROK trade with Japan and the United States was $78.5 billion and $76.8 billion respectively in 2006.

Meanwhile, there are approximately 30,000 Korean companies that have invested in China. Their total investment reached $35 billion in April 2007. The two governments have set an objective for bilateral trade to reach $200 billion by 2012.1 Presently, each week there are approximately 800 flights between six South Korean cities and thirty Chinese cities. All these developments show that the relationship has reached such a degree that neither side can afford a dramatic downward spiral. That was why the emotional Koguryo controversy did not and will not undermine the relationship in a fundamental way.

The mutually beneficial relationship has further strengthened itself in recent years. During President Hu's visit to the ROK in late 2005, Seoul recognized China's full market economy status. …