Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.07.23

South Korean President Park Geun-hye's Visit to China

President Park Geun-hye of South Korea paid a visit to China from June 27 to June 30. She is quite interested in both Chinese history and classical literature and she is highly knowledgeable about these subjects. She also is fluent in Chinese. She was able to strengthen South Korea's cooperative relations with China through numerous activities, including her talks with President Xi Jinping and a speech delivered at Tsinghua University. Understandably, therefore, the Chinese press reported this state visit quite favorably.

The Japanese media also devoted extensive coverage President Park's state visit to China - that she broke with tradition by making China, not Japan, her second overseas destination, after the United States; that in her speech at Tsinghua University, she seemed to criticize Japan by stating that the current situation in Northeast Asia is highly unstable and that "though the economic interdependency among regional countries is growing, disputes involving historic issues, regional security and mutual mistrust made political and security cooperation lag behind economic cooperation"; that she requested that the Chinese build a memorial for Ahn Jung-geun, who, over a hundred years ago, assassinated Hirobumi Ito, who had been the first Prime Minister of Japan and, at the time, was the Japanese Resident-General of Korea, at the Harbin train station in protest of Japan's increasing intervention in Korea. Reports of these statements during President Park's visit to China provoked complex reactions in Japan. Some Japanese may have thought that President Park was overly pro-China and anti-Japan. Some even leveled the emotional criticism that she was attempting to establish a united front with China that excluded Japan.

Japan needs to remain cool and observe the situation objectively, particularly one that is unwelcome. During their post-summit joint press conference, the Chinese and South Korean leaders stated that, for regional as well as international cooperation, it is critical that China, South Korea, and Japan cooperate for the purposes of national development and for the peace and prosperity of Northeast Asia. They also stated that China and South Korea will promote cooperative relations among the 3 countries, including at the leadership level, and will jointly endeavor to achieve harmonious relations, including joint efforts to hold a Trilateral (Japan-China-Korea) Summit meeting. This statement was aimed at establishing cooperative relations with Japan - not only economically but also politically - and indicates that the two countries were not just intending to create a united bilateral front that emphasized historical issues.

Looking at the perspectives of a third party may also be useful. Want Daily, a Taiwanese paper owned by the Want Want Holdings (which has grown based on collaboration with a Japanese rice cracker manufacturer), that has business in mainland China and is knowledgeable about China published the following opinion piece on June 29:

"Korea Gets Two Birds With One Stone, Dealing with Taiwan and North Korea: South Korean President Park Geun-hye paid an important visit to China. At stake was economic strategy as well as political and security strategy, and South Korea achieved 'two birds with one stone,' dealing with Taiwan and North Korea issues.

In her speech at the Korea-China Business Forum in Beijing, President Park emphasized the importance of concluding a Korea-China free trade agreement (FTA). During the China-South Korea summit meeting on June 27, the two countries unanimously stressed the importance of the China-ROK FTA, and decided to work together toward signing the agreement.

For some time, Korean products have been competing with Taiwanese products, and the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA, an FTA concluded in 2010) by China and Taiwan made South Korean businesses nervous. Furthermore, in less than three years, China and Taiwan agreed on a cross-strait service trade pact in June 2013, further agitating Korean businesses in China. Therefore, President Park Geun-hye visited China to accelerate the conclusion of the China-ROK FTA, so that Korea's commercial interests in China can be expanded.

The Korean Peninsula trust-building process that President Park emphasized indicates her policy of solving the nuclear issue with the DPRK through dialogue.

Her positions helped highlight the image of the DPRK as a 'troublemaker,' by contrast with ROK being fully in line with China's national interests, thereby weakening the DPRK's relationship with China."

This opinion piece makes clear the meaning for Taiwan of President Park's visit to China. As regards North Korea, some additional background information may be useful, i.e., the DPRK launched a "satellite" rocket at the end of the last year, followed by a nuclear test in February and withdrew from an armistice treaty - all of which China found troubling. President Park demonstrated her understanding to China's position and, by indicating that she was willing to act together with China, she seems to have strengthened her position toward the DPRK than if the ROK were trying to act tough on its own.

After President Park's visit to China, the DPRK criticized her, stating that "Park Geun Hye let loose a whole string of provocative remarks seriously hurting the dignity and social system in the DPRK while visiting China." The DPRK also criticized her remark regarding the DPRK's nuclear program that "this only invites self-isolation" and stated that "This is a blatant challenge to the dignity, social system and political line of the DPRK and an unpardonable grave provocation against it" "the DPRK's nukes, shield for justice and peace and treasure for the nation, can never be a bargaining chip in any case." These are the DPRK's usual hardline statements, but there may be something more to them. We will have to pay attention as to how the DPRK intends to deal with the Park Administration.