Seoul scores own goal in diplomat's
death By Sunny Lee
BEIJING - The low-key, drawn-out inquiry
into the death of a senior South Korean diplomat
in China makes pundits wonder what's really behind
the actions - or inaction - of Seoul and Beijing
in this highly sensitive yet very much
Whang Joung-il, 52,
the second-highest South Korean diplomat in China,
drove himself to a hospital in downtown Beijing on
July 29, feeling uncomfortable after eating a
sandwich he had bought at a convenience store. He
was given an intravenous injection. He
developed difficulty breathing. Some 20 minutes
later, he died.
Beijing and Seoul disagree
on the cause of Whang's death. Seoul believes it
was a medical blunder, while Beijing sees it as a
case of Whang's succumbing to illness at an
China initially appeared
at a disadvantageous position to defend itself
because the death of the foreign diplomat came
amid a spate of food scares and a fake-medicine
scandal that received intense international
The news was suppressed in
China - understandably. Among the major dailies in
Beijing, only the Beijing News ventured to write
about it. But oddly enough, even though the
incident had happened in Beijing, the Beijing
News' short piece was gleaned from the Xin Kuai
Bao (Express News) - a newspaper in faraway
Guangdong province near Hong Kong.
also warned the foreign media. "We mourn and
regret the death of Whang, but at the same time,
condemn some foreign media which have tried to use
the incident as a pretext to exaggerate and attack
China's food and drug management," Ministry of
Health spokesman Mao Qun'an said.
case has gone on for almost a month, and as there
is not much information coming out of either
Beijing or Seoul, the media's initial enthusiasm
for the incident has fizzled out. At the same
time, however, pundits are taking a fresh look at
First of all, it was quite
obvious that Beijing wanted to sweep the incident
under rug. But what is unusual is Seoul's very
low-key approach in handling the matter.
"It's odd. I got the impression that Seoul
wanted the matter to be handled as quietly as
possible when its own diplomat had died at a
Chinese hospital in what appears to be a medical
bungle," an observer said.
Beijing quietly signaled that it would send an
official to Whang's memorial service, the South
Korean Embassy declined, saying it would prefer a
Whether or not that was
Seoul's way of showing displeasure with what its
media reported as Beijing's "insincere" attitude
in investigating the case, it was seen by some as
a diplomatic blunder on the part of Seoul.
"My understanding is that the Chinese
planned to send a senior Foreign Ministry
official, at least at the level in charge of
Asia-Pacific affairs. But the South Koreans
declined. That was a wrong move for Seoul because
that's exactly what China wanted," an observer
The observer argued that it showed
South Korea lacks diplomatic shrewdness. "China
felt obliged to make a diplomatic gesture to
express its condolence for Whang. But Seoul said
there's no such need. So there was no Chinese
official present at Whang's funeral. So the issue
didn't become 'diplomatized', so to speak.
"In diplomacy, every word and every move
counts. When China said it would send its official
to the funeral, in diplomatic language it means
China 'acknowledges' its responsibility for
Whang's death. But the Koreans declined. Now, it's
no longer a diplomatic issue. Rather, it has
become a personal issue for Whang's family. Seoul
should have more thoughtfully approached the
matter," the observer said.
In his view,
Whang's death was, in a sense, a diplomatic
opportunity for South Korea. China has been
engaged in a painstaking campaign of defending
itself against international criticism and
domestic concerns on the quality and authenticity
of its food and medicine. Whether China officially
acknowledges it or not, Whang's death was bound to
be implicated with them.
"South Korea was
given an opportunity to score. But it seems they
didn't use it wisely," he said.
Chinese pundit sees the matter as demonstrating
South Korea's lack of diplomatic calculation, a
Korean observer sees it differently. "I think the
matter is counterintuitive. We should look at it
from the point of view of the two countries'
"China and South Korea have
been enjoying a honeymoon recently. The immediate
previous foreign minister of China, Li Zhaoxing,
was said to have commented to Ban Ki-moon, then
South Korea's foreign minister and now the UN
chief, that Li could hear the sound of a morning
hen singing from South Korea from Li's home town
in Shandong, [which is] a seashore town facing
South Korea. Li was saying that the two countries
are enjoying a great relationship."
Indeed, the two neighbors' relationship
couldn't be better. China is South Korea's biggest
trading partner, while South Korea is China's
third. China is also South Korea's biggest
investment destination. About 40,000 South Korean
companies, including Samsung Electronics and
Hyundai Motors, have a big presence in China.
China set up its first overseas Confucius
Institute in Seoul. One-third of all foreign
students studying in China come from South Korea.
South Korea and China last Friday
commemorated their 15th anniversary of
establishing diplomatic relations. Some had
worried that Whang's death might escalate into an
untimely diplomatic clash between the two
neighbors. It did not.
Kim Ha-joong, South
Korea's ambassador to China, was all over the
Chinese media last week, including as a guest on
several Chinese television shows. Kim said China
and South Korea are "comprehensive cooperative
partners", explaining that it means "a level of
partnership that enables the two countries to
march forward toward common goals in all aspects
without being hindered by some conflicts of
The South Korean scholar,
who wants to remain anonymous, said, "Given all
these circumstances, what probably happened was,
immediately after the incident, Beijing sent an
SOS to Seoul, seeking its understanding. Seoul
accepted it and didn't go on a massive diplomatic
frenzy about it.
"Beijing must have
offered some concessions to Seoul. My hunch is
that it might be something on the six-party talks
[over North Korea's nuclear program] or some
economic deals. Otherwise, given the magnitude of
the incident, the kind of low gesture by South
Korea when its own senior diplomat had died is
unthinkable as a sovereign country. Even a country
which has less diplomatic muscle than South Korea
would have lodged a stronger protest."
a nutshell, what appeared to be a poor diplomatic
maneuver from South Korea on the death of its
envoy in China may actually have been a
choreographed deal between the two countries meant
to save China's face, the argument goes.
However, the dominant view in South Korea
maintains that Seoul's not standing up to Beijing
was merely another manifestation of the "China
complex" Korea has experienced for two millennia
toward its powerful neighbor.
Lee is a writer/journalist based in Beijing,
where he has lived for five years. A native of
South Korea, Lee is a graduate of Harvard
University and Beijing Foreign Studies University.