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Experts give Korea-China relations a score of 4.6 out of 10

Aug 24,2017
South Korea and China mark 25 years of bilateral ties today, but experts gave their current relations a below-average score due to the fallout over the deployment of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system.

The JoongAng Ilbo surveyed 25 foreign affairs and security experts, who were asked to score Korea-China relations on a range of 1 to 10, 10 being the best. They gave an average score of 4.6.

This is lower than during past crises, such as the 2000 trade dispute over Korea’s levying of tariffs on Chinese garlic, which garnered a score of 5.5.

They also scored relations at 5.6 around 2005, amid a historical dispute involving China’s attempts to incorporate the Goguryeo (37 B.C. - A.D. 668) and Balhae (698-926) kingdoms into its own history, using as evidence a government study conducted by the Northeast Project of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) from 2002 to 2007.

Likewise, relations were given a score of 5.1 points during heightened tension with North Korea, following its sinking of the South’s Cheonon warship in March 2010 and the Yeonpyeong Island shelling in November that year.

They scored relations at 3.8 immediately after the decision by Seoul and Beijing to deploy the Thaad battery in July last year.

According to Kim Han-kwon, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, “While the garlic dispute or the CASS issue were bilateral problems between Seoul and Beijing, the Thaad issue involves four countries - North and South Korea, as well as China and the United States - which is why it is difficult for us to manage it.”

The experts also indicated they did not see bilateral relations improving under the current administration, pointing out that what we are now seeing may be a new normal.

“This is the first time there has been such a structure of strategic conflict between North and South Korea, China and the United States since the [1950-53] Korean War,” said Lee Seong-hyon, a researcher on unification strategy studies at Sejong Institute. “In relations between South Korea and China, there only exists ‘before Thaad’ and ‘after Thaad.’”

Han Suk-hee, an associate professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies, made a similar comparison, recalling the 1980 television film “The Day After,” which portrayed events before and after a nuclear attack. He warned, “Similar to ‘The Day After,’ even if Korea-China relations recover, it will be difficult to return to the state before the Thaad conflict.”

Furthermore, experts pointed out that North Korea continues to heavily influence Seoul-Beijing relations.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that 80 percent of the strife between South Korea and China occurs because of North Korea,” said Kang Jun-young, a professor of international studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. “South Korea has intentionally hidden the conflict between its alliance with the United States and its cooperation with China, but this has come to the surface due to the acceleration of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.”

BY YOO JEE-HYE, PARK YU-MI [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]