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Korea-Taiwan flying close to the wind
By Andrew Petty

SEOUL - The resumption of direct air links between South Korea and Taiwan after a 14-year break and reports that former Korean president Kim Young-sam will visit Taipei - both presumably offending China - certainly raise a big question: is this the beginning of a new Seoul-Taipei friendship?

The timing of these events is significant. While South Korea is pouting over China's attempts to rewrite history books and apparently claim an ancient kingdom on the peninsula as its own, Seoul also strikes a landmark commercial aviation deal with what China considers a renegade province, Taiwan, while many Taiwanese claim a separate or independent identity. (China, however, has made no territorial claims.)

The aviation pact was signed September 1 by Hwang Yong-shik, head of the South Korea mission in Taipei, and Li Tsai-fang, representative of the Taipei mission in Seoul. Experts say that Beijing will accept, and to some extent encourage, economic agreements, but will come down harshly on any political overtures. China has not commented officially on the Seoul-Taipei flights.

Flights will resume next month, with 18 flights a week between Incheon and Taipei. Flights between other cities are to be determined later.

Out of respect for the Beijing's "One China Policy", direct flights have been banned between Korea and Taiwan since Seoul normalized relations with Beijing in 1992. Today, there is still some residual resentment in Taiwan over Korea cutting off the flights and high-level diplomatic ties. However, cultural imports such as Korean movies and pop singers have helped to improve relations.

Some South Korean analysts believe the resumption of commercial aviation ties with Taiwan is partly the result of South Korea's anger over Beijing's apparent efforts to lay historical claim to the ancient kingdom of Koguryo, considered by Koreans to be one of their three founding kingdoms. Officials in Seoul, however, have not said that the dispute over Koguryo is a factor, though media reports have indicated that it may well be part of South Korea's calculus with regard to Beijing's actions and an attempt to assert itself.

Before the ban on air links, 420,000 Koreans and Taiwanese visited each other every year. The level dropped to 200,000 shortly after the ban and it still hasn't recovered, with last year's figures totaling 306,000. Only charter flights were allowed during that time.

Talks about resuming the South Korea-Taiwan air routes have been ongoing during the past few years. On the surface, experts say it's just an economic agreement. The deal will make it much easier and affordable to travel, giving a boost to tourism and related businesses. Instead of being forced to fly over China or The Philippines' airspace on the way to Southeast Asia, 170 flights leaving Seoul will take a fraction of the time. Korean airliners will save 33 billion won ($29 million) a year in fuel and airspace fees.

Restoring the air routes may also open the door to other exchanges. More commercial relations and low-level diplomatic visits are likely, analysts suggest. Korean exports to Taiwan make up about 4-5% of its market, so the island market is definitely on Seoul's radar.

Many mutually beneficial agreements between South Korea and Taiwan, mostly concerning business, already exist. Beyond that, however, Taipei will have take whatever it can get, says professor John Lie, dean of international and area studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

Lie told Asia Times Online that tourism encourages friendships between the two peoples, perhaps Koreans will feel more sympathy for the Taiwanese cause - for many a separate identity, for some independence - and will pressure their own government in Seoul to take further actions supporting Taiwan.

There are no obvious political overtures to this aviation pact, but experts say the deal is a mixture of calculated tactics.

Koreans are deeply offended by the Chinese government's decisions to back an academic project that concludes that the ancient Koguryo kingdom (37 BC to 668 AD), widely considered to be part of Korean history, was once a Chinese province. Several months ago, China's foreign ministry deleted all of Korea's history up to 1948 on its website. The kingdom's capital was located on the northern Korean Peninsula and its empire spread into modern-day Manchuria.

Millions of ethnic Koreans live in the northern Chinese provinces and according to China watchers, the Beijing government fears the people there will seek greater autonomy, realization of their Korean ethnic roots - or even independence - in the future.

Last month the vice foreign ministers of the two nations reached a vague verbal agreement that said the kingdom territorial and sovereignty issue should not be politicized. China agreed not to change its textbooks in line with its historical but not territorial claims. Both ruling and opposition legislative parties in Korea have called the agreement unsatisfactory and urged the government to take a tougher line. The debate continues.

Concerning the unresolved Koguryo kingdom issue, no further talks are scheduled. President Roh Moo-hyun, however, did deliver a message to Jia Qinglin, a senior Chinese official, during his Seoul visit on August 27 - urging Beijing to live up to its verbal agreement. There is widespread skepticism, however, about how binding that agreement really is.

"Some, in the [opposition] Grand National Party (GNP) and within the foreign ministry, among others, are no doubt motivated to use relations with Taiwan as a gesture to show defiance to China," said James Schoff, a senior researcher at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, a think tank in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Korea could be headed for a serious backlash from China if Seoul oversteps its boundaries and forms stronger diplomatic relations with Taiwan. China could fight back by interfering with Korean business investments in China, frustrating the six-party talks aimed at defusing the North Korean nuclear program - or even supporting North Korea's military, Schoff told Asia Times Online.

Last May before Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's inauguration, the Chinese Embassy in Seoul sought to discourage Korean legislators from attending the ceremony. However, a delegation of several GNP lawmakers and businessmen attended the event. A local newspaper later quoted the embassy as saying China would not issue those lawmakers travel visas, if they desired to travel on the mainland.

News reports have said former president Kim may well visit Taiwan in the near future, though there has been no official announcement. One expert said that if he does visit Taipei, he is likely to discuss economic ties and exchanges - officially Beijing doesn't oppose that - but a security agreement for Taiwan or diplomatic support is still out of the question, says another expert.

"Like Singapore, Australia, and the Philippines, South Korea wants good neighborly relations with Taiwan, but relations with the Chinese mainland are more important - especially in the context of the ongoing six-party talks on North Korean nuclear disarmament," professor Rick Baum of the University of California at Los Angeles told Asia Times Online.

If Korea's aim is to protest China's claim of the Koguryo (our style) kingdom, there are safer ways to go about it, Schoff told Atol.

"South Korea can try to use the Koguryo issue to strengthen ties with the North Korea and threaten to drive a wedge between Beijing and Pyongyang," he said. If South Korea really wants to use the threat of increased friendship with a third country as a means of pressuring Beijing, he suggests teaming up even more closely with the United States [Seoul and Washington already are allies, though their relationship is strained]. Closer ties with Washington strikes a less emotional chord with the Chinese but could be equally unsettling [to] China's foreign policy plans, Schoff said.

"Supporting the US indirectly supports Taiwanese democracy," said Schoff.

Andrew Petty is a freelance writer based in Seoul and writing about politics and culture.

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Sep 15, 2004

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(Aug 25, '04) 


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