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China shock for South Korea
By Bruce Klingner

The Sino-Korean imbroglio over the ancient Koguryo (Goguryeo) Kingdom (37 BC-AD 668) dramatically underscores the extent to which concerns with history currently dominate events on the Korean Peninsula. Beijing's attempt to usurp a key component of Korea's history and claim that Koguryo was a "subordinate state that fell under the jurisdiction of the Chinese dynasties" inflamed both Koreas, and it may lead South Korea to re-evaluate its growing strategic relationship with China. South Korea may be experiencing China shock.

The Koguryo issue has revealed a heretofore unobserved level of suspicion of China in South Korea.

China-South Korea relations have expanded steadily since diplomatic relations were formalized in 1992. For China, this came at the expense of its traditional ally North Korea, but Beijing placed the economic benefits of aligning its burgeoning market economy with Asian Tiger South Korea above its political and military alliance with Pyongyang.

In 2003, China displaced the United States as South Korea's largest trading partner in a significant strategic shift that elicited little apparent attention in the US media. Whether the economic realignment was simply a reflection of changing economic realities or was the result of political decisions by Seoul remains a matter of debate. Regardless, the alteration in South Korean trading priorities represented a tectonic shift for the region and, combined with growing friction in Seoul's alliance with Washington, reinforced the populace's growing perception of a national future more closely aligned with China.

China shock
There have, of course, been issues that have strained relations, including Chinese treatment of North Korean refugees. Perhaps the strongest tremors in the relationship, however, first arose in late April when Seoul experienced an epiphany of the devastating impact that a contracting Chinese economy could have on the South Korean economy. Although leading indicators had for some time pointed to China's economy overheating, the severity of the situation was not clear until Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced in the spring that Beijing would implement more drastic "financial retrenchments" to reduce and rationalize the country's economic growth. The official statements caused the Korean stock market and the value of the won to plummet.

Then acting president Goh Kun responded by ordering an emergency meeting to monitor the short- and long-term effects of the "China shock" and assess the ability of South Korea's macro-economic policies to respond. A senior government review group re-evaluated Korea's growing dependency on the Chinese economy and assessed the country's potential alternatives.

The Chosun Ilbo warned then in an editorial, titled "When China coughs, does Korea catch a cold?", that the South Korean economic fluctuation revealed the weaknesses of an economy that was overly dependent on the Chinese market. It called on the government and business to develop a counter-plan to "strengthen the economic system by dispersing the market and production".

Koguryo - spanning the Yalu and the ages
The simmering Koguryo dispute appears to have been triggered by China's deletion of all references to Korean history prior to 1948 from its Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, rather than acceding to South Korean requests to correct Chinese misinformation. After Seoul expressed its outrage, China responded by blocking domestic Chinese public access to websites critical of its actions, including the Chinese-language edition of the Chosun Ilbo and the World Arirang Forum, a cyber-discussion site for ethnic Koreans in China.

China established its Northeast Asian Project in 2002 to provide the appearance of academic and scientific validity to its assertions about Koguryo. In 2003, Beijing sought to have the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declare those Koguryo ruins that were within China a World Heritage site. Professor Choi Kwang-shik of Korea University, writing in the Korea Times, postulated that Chinese efforts could, however, be traced back to 1980, when Beijing adopted a "one country, one people" policy as a way to consolidate all of China's peoples into one.

The Chinese leadership has indeed been gravely concerned over the destabilizing impact of diverse ethnicity. Bhutanese, Nepalese and Uighur nationalists, among others, have derided the "one people" policy as Beijing's attempt to undermine their efforts for autonomy. In a similar manner, China may now be seeking to assert its unquestioned control over its northeastern region, with an estimated 3 million ethnic Koreans, in long-term preparation for Korean reunification. Beijing may fear that a reunited Korea could seek to petition for the ethnically Korean portion of China as part of a "greater Korea".

Koreans, conversely, fear that China's actions may reflect an offensive strategy either to gain Korean territory after reunification or to influence the character of the northern portion of a reunified Korea to protect its national interests. Beijing might, for example, demand a strategic demilitarized buffer with Korea as well as no US troops north of the current Demilitarized Zone. The estimated 200,000-300,000 North Korean refugees who currently reside illegally in northeastern China, along with Chinese fears of the massive influx that would result from a collapse of the North Korean regime, may also have factored into Beijing's calculus to exert control over its border regions.

Kicking the issue down the road
China eventually realized that its heavy-handed approach risked a deterioration in its relations with South Korea. Beijing dispatched senior diplomats to settle the dispute before it caused a permanent manifestation of anti-Chinese sentiment in South Korea and undermined its strategic interests in the region. Jia Qinglin, chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, admitted during his visit that "the relationship between China and South Korea has been affected to a certain extent by the issue of Goguryeo". He added that Chinese President Hu Jintao sought to prevent any more conflicts between the two countries arising from the Koguryo issue.

However, the amorphous and non-binding nature of the five-point "verbal understanding" generated criticism in South Korea for the government's continuing its policy of timidity with Beijing and for accepting a deferral rather than pressing for a resolution of the dispute. South Korean Foreign Affairs-Trade Minister Ban Ki-moon claimed a form of victory by stressing that it was the first time Beijing had acknowledged the "seriousness" of the issue to South Korea. A Foreign Ministry official told reporters that China had pledged not to lay claim to Koguryo in its history textbooks and promised "there would be no more government-level, central or provincial, attempts to distort the history of Koguryo". However, opponents argue that the agreement does not include such a clause, that Beijing did not issue an apology, nor did it agree to restore its Foreign Ministry website to the status prior to the current dispute. Joongang Ilbo characterized the agreement as "stopgap measures for China to dodge the escalating anti-Chinese sentiment in Korea".

Ramifications for the Sino-South Korean relationship
The manner in which China set out to usurp a critical component of Korea's national character has caused an estrangement and may lead South Koreans to rethink the increasingly prevalent view that China and the United States were interchangeable as partners. South Koreans may now believe that they glimpsed behind the facade of Beijing's benevolent "China rising" foreign policy and saw the true nature of its intentions toward the region. Beijing has sought to allay regional concerns over its mounting economic, military and political power by asserting it is not seeking hegemony but, rather, "non-alignment, non-confrontation, and non-targeting at any third party".

To be sure, Seoul will not, nor can it, turn its back on Beijing, nor can it divest itself of interaction with the Chinese economy, which continues to be seen as the region's economic engine. However, the issue has revealed a previously unobserved level of suspicion of China. The Korea Times editorialized that the issue may lead to a "serious erosion of the bilateral relationship, which has developed remarkably politically, diplomatically and economically over the past 12 years". Prior to the Koguryo dispute, more Korean legislators favored China as a future partner in world politics over the United States. But since then, a greater percentage advocate becoming friendlier toward the US.

Manifestations of Seoul's Sino suspicion
The South Korean government will increase its budget for its own Koguryo Research Foundation as a way to counter China's Koguryo efforts more effectively. Ruling Uri Party legislator Cho Bae-sook announced a preliminary agreement with the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development to allocate additional funding. Prime Minister Lee Hai-chan ordered the government to monitor foreign textbooks to detect any distortions of South Korean history.

Foreign Affairs-Trade Minister Ban Ki-moon told reporters that the Seoul government would "not tolerate any attempt by Beijing to claim the history of Koguryo [and would] stop further attempts to distort history, such as the revision of its [China's] textbooks." In another sign of a more assertive South Korean policy, Ban indicated that Seoul would reconsider whether to rescind its policy banning Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, from visiting South Korea.

Trouble on the horizon
In an indication of the next potential diplomatic dispute, 60 South Korean lawmakers of the ruling and opposition parties submitted a resolution to refute the validity of the 1909 Gando Convention in which colonial Japan ceded the territory of Gando - a portion of Korea's Chosun Kingdom - to China. The agreement established the current border between China and North Korea and conceivably could become an issue after Korean reunification. Minister Ban emphasized that "the Gando problem is a very delicate matter involving many countries, including North Korea".

The extent to which the Koguryo dispute will affect future South Korean policy decisions remains to be seen. However, it will likely generate government and private debate over how Seoul will balance its relationships with China and the United States. A growing percentage of the South Korean populace now will likely espouse maintaining a strong alliance with Washington - and proceed more slowly in building economic, political, and security relationships with Beijing.

Bruce Klingner is director of analysis for Intellibridge Corp in Washington, DC. Intellibridge provides customized open-source intelligence analysis for government, corporate and sovereign clients. His areas of expertise are strategic national security, political and military affairs in China, Northeast Asia, Korea and Japan.

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Sep 11, 2004

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