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Regional Peace Building: The Korean Peninsula and North-east Asia

10 June 2010, Centre for Asian Pacific Studies, Lingnan University

An Emerging “Strategic Partnership” between Beijing and Seoul?
Historical Lessons and Strategic Realities

Taeho Kim
Professor, Hallym University

In light of the extensive ties between Beijing and Seoul—now termed as a “strategic cooperative partnership”—as well as of the growing importance of China on peninsular and regional affairs, it appears axiomatic for the ROK to pursue a stable and prospering relationship with China.  Since the early 1990s and continuing to date, rapid improvement in Sino-ROK ties has indeed generated a thick web of individual and institutional interests within South Korean society, which remain sympathetic to Beijing.

On the other hand, given their historical encounters, political divergence, and strategic calculus, it is entirely possible that the ROK’s differences with China on specific and concrete issues would affect the erstwhile discrete interactions with China in other dimensions. Korea’s checkered history with China is another example. While South Korean images of China are difficult to generalize, they tend to eye China in three different ways: a traditional great power—an image which had been built upon their largely unequal yet amicable pre-19th century ties; a Cold-War adversary represented by their hostile experience during the Korean War (1950-53); and a new, pragmatic country with the so-called “good-neighborly, friendly relationship,” formed after the Sino-ROK normalization in 1992.

With a particular focus on their historical and strategic relationships, this essay will argue that a) China’s stakes on peninsular stability are largely based on its security and economic interests; b) notwithstanding their extensive and growing ties, there are a host of potentially conflictual issues that have been under-researched and under-reported; c) South Korea continually needs to prioritize its ties with the U.S. and with China ; and finally d) China will become a source for both despair and hope in realizing South Korea’s national objectives.

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