This is the second in a series of columns by experts and our staff on priority issues of President-elect Park Geun-hye. ― ED.
By Sunny Lee
Dear Madam President-elect, Congratulations on your election. I would first like to report to you that China paid uncommon interest to you. I noticed that even the state-controlled CCTV dispatched their reporters to Seoul to air your victorious moment live.
Among the different candidates, you were the one Chinese people were most familiar with and you were the one who got the most media coverage in China, due to your father's background and heartbreaking family story. I read special feature stories about you in the Beijing News, the Southern Weekly, and other major Chinese newspapers. The other presidential candidates didn't get that treatment.
Chinese media highlighted the fact that you are female, perhaps too often. China has the habit of using a foreign example to teach its domestic audience. China wants to boost the female presence in its own political sphere. Both China and South Korea are countries with a strong Confucian tradition, which tend to place men above women. So, when you became the leader in a male-dominated Confucian country, it was bound to have an impact in China. Indeed, you became a "role model" in China before you became a president in South Korea.
I understand that as the president-elect, you'are already faced with a number of tasks on the table and are coordinating them with President Lee, who will step down soon. Some say North Korea's rocket launch is your first foreign policy challenge. So, you may first want to know whether China is willing to agree to slap a new U.N. Security Council sanction against North Korea for its satellite launch, which was widely seen as a disguised test for a long-range missile. So, on your behalf, I asked the question to Prof. Shi Yinhong at Renmin University, who advises the Chinese government.
Be prepared that there will be "substantial differences" over North Korea between Seoul and Beijing. To quote Shi, "China will not agree to a new sanction. A new sanction is only for a new nuclear test, not for a rocket launch," he said.
Obviously, that's China's bottom line in handling the rocket launch. Prof. Shi added that China may consider "additional measures" but it should be "within" the pre-existing sanctions on North Korea, "not a brand-new sanction." I think that gives you some hint on how to maneuver through this complex affair, which, like many other issues surrounding North Korea, requires Chinese cooperation.
Speaking of North Korea, in fact, the major conflict South Korea had in recent years with China was not about their bilateral issues, but rather their differences over how to deal with North Korea's belligerence, including the sinking of the navy corvette Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, which killed a total of 50 South Koreans. Another thorny issue that erupted a few months ago was about Kim Young-hwan, a South Korean activist, who was imprisoned in China, while trying to help North Korean defectors and improve human-rights conditions in the North. He was released, but his reported torture in the Chinese prison triggered a huge uproar in South Korea.
Gao Haorong, a former Pyongyang correspondent with China's Xinhua News Agency, told me that the North Korean defector issue will also continue to test Seoul-Beijing ties. "The issue is very complicated," Gao said. He quickly added that fundamentally it is a problem "between the two Koreas," not between China and South Korea.
One of the reasons China was unhappy with the Lee Myung-bak administration was that they believe Lee mismanaged the inter-Korean relations himself, and blamed China for "not doing enough" to contain North Korea's belligerence. China's message is that South Korea should take the driver's seat in dealing with the North Korean issue.
Prof. Shi said: "If the new South Korean president takes a milder approach toward North Korea, as she promised, and launch the inter-Korean dialogue, this will reduce the inter-Korean tension, and the China-South Korea ties will be much more comfortable."
Gao of the Xinhua New Agency thinks that the South Korean media's attitude toward reporting on China is problematic, often driving a wedge between the peoples of the two countries. He called for South Korean media outlets to treat many bilateral issues and conflicts "in a calm manner," rather than sensationalize them.
Madam Park, as you know, the two neighboring countries have a number of other challenges to overcome, such as frequent fishing territory disputes and the "online war" among bloggers, as well as the nature of the U.S.-South Korean military alliance. China is suspicious whether South Korea's military alliance with the U.S. is not just against North Korea, but also against China.
Prof. Zhao Huji at the Central Party School in Beijing, an institution that grooms Communist party cadre, believes that at the core of the answers to all these problems lies good communication. Unfortunately, good communication is what is lacking today between the two neighbors, he said.
"The two countries should be able to have frank and honest conversations in dealing with these issues. To do that, they need to build mutual trust," Zhao told me.
"A very top-level figure, such as a retired South Korean president or any other person with a similar capacity will do," he said, emphasizing the need to embark on informal, back-door, high-level communication channels to manage and prevent crises. Based on my understanding of Chinese culture, his advice is something to be taken seriously. I heard similar suggestions from other Chinese experts as well.
Shi at Renmin University suggested that South Korea and China first work on the area where they are good at cooperating with each other: economy. The ongoing FTA negotiations will be one of the first testing grounds for trust-building for the duo.
Madam Park, the issue of "trust" is not only the item frequently raised by the Chinese experts on Korea, but also ordinary Chinese citizens as well. Cai Xiao, a Chinese graduate student who is currently studying at South Korea's Kyungpook National University, put it this way: "Ultimately it all boils down to trust, whether it is the presence of the American military in Korea or the cultural ownership issue, or the territorial dispute over Ieodo, the root cause of all the matters came from mistrust, and suspicions of the other side's intentions," he said.
Cai suggested that you could take some specific measures, such as promoting middle-school student exchange programs between China and South Korea so that those who will grow up to lead the two countries in the future can cultivate more affinity toward the other. I asked Cai, "Why middle school students?" He said, "Those old people have a mindset that is difficult to change." I think Cai's observation is quite perceptive. As a Chinese person, who has lived in South Korea, Cai understands the depth of the problem.
Madam Park, although "building trust" is a cliche I don't' want to use it often, it seems South Korea and China really need to work on it. I am also worried about the young generations in the two countries. Some of them are pretty hostile towards each other on the Internet. I think it's time to take the matter seriously.
I also happen to know Yang Fan, a Chinese woman who married a Korean man. She works at a bank in Beijing. "I think the opinions expressed by Internet bloggers on both countries need to improve a lot," she worryingly said.
On the night of your presidential victory, I was on a Hong Kong TV program, commenting on the election. At that time, I suggested that China should dispatch interlocutors to communicate with your foreign affairs advisers. The reason for my urging was that the incumbent Lee administration and China didn't have that robust communication during his first months, and it led to many mutual misunderstandings and mistrust afterwards.
Chinese people think you speak fluent Chinese. And that's another reason why they like you too. You may receive a call from China. So, when you pick up the phone, you may say a few words of greeting in Chinese. I know Chinese people really appreciate that.
Sunny Lee is a Korea Times correspondent stationed in Beijing and covers Chinese affairs. Lee can be reached on email@example.com.