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Foreign Ministry to set up new China bureau

Dec 11,2018
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is expected to launch a new China bureau early next year, according to diplomatic sources, as Seoul shifts its diplomatic priorities to Beijing and away from Tokyo.

A diplomatic source in Tokyo said Monday, “As the importance of diplomacy toward China and related tasks have expanded, the Foreign Ministry decided to create a bureau that separately deals with China tasks.”

Currently, the Foreign Ministry’s Northeast Asian Affairs Bureau’s first division deals with Japan and its second division handles China matters.

The newly launched China bureau will focus solely on China, Hong Kong, Macao and also Taiwan, according to plans.

Discussions about the reorganization with the Ministry of the Interior and Safety have already taken place, and if there is no big opposition by the ministry, the new China bureau may be launched as early as next month. The Interior Ministry oversees structural reforms of ministries.

Elevating a division within the Northeast Asian Affairs Bureau into a bureau and focusing on one country shows Korea’s prioritizing of China in its diplomacy. The only other bureau that focuses on a single country is the North American Affairs Bureau, which largely oversees U.S. matters, though it also deals with Canada. In turn, the Northeast Asian Affairs Bureau’s first division, which handles Japan affairs, is likely to be combined with a bureau that handles Australia, India and the South West Pacific region.

The Donald Trump administration has pushed its Indo-Pacific strategy, reaching out to its major allies in Asia - Japan, India and Australia - and replacing the Barack Obama administration’s so-called pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, in which China was highly significant. The exact name of the bureau on China affairs has yet to be decided, since it may not be appropriate to attach a country name to a bureau, generally named after regions.

But diplomatic circles are saying that launching a China bureau is tantamount to placing it on the same level as the North American bureau - meaning the United States.

“Anybody will view the ministry’s reorganization plan as one that prioritizes China,” the diplomatic source in Tokyo said. “It is true that tying together Japan, Australia and India is not a familiar way of thinking.”

Seoul and Tokyo have been facing renewed strains in diplomatic relations recently over familiar historical issues.

Korea’s Supreme Court in October and November made a series of rulings ordering Japanese companies to compensate Korean victims of forced labor during World War II. The top court’s rulings countered Tokyo’s claim that a 1965 treaty normalizing bilateral relations with Seoul settled all compensation matters once and for all, pointing to the illegality of its colonial rule and recognizing that individuals’ rights to file claims for damages has not expired. Tokyo has protested these rulings.

Likewise, the Korean government last month decided to shut down a Tokyo-funded foundation meant to support women forced to work as sex slaves in Japan’s military brothels during World War II. The Reconciliation and Healing Foundation was established after an agreement signed on Dec. 28, 2015, which included an apology from Tokyo and a 1 billion yen fund for the so-called comfort women, which amounted to about $8.8 million at the time. The deal faced backlash from victims and civic organizations. The Moon Jae-in administration, while admitting the agreement’s flaws, has said it won’t completely scrap or renegotiate it.

Experts point out that through the creation of a China bureau, the grip held by the so-called Japan School, or diplomats with Japan expertise, will shift to the China School. Recently, nobody applied for a junior diplomat position at the Korean Embassy in Japan, which could be an indicator that the traditional clout of the Japan School among younger diplomats has been lessening.

A former diplomat said, “There has been some disgruntlement among the China School that, until now, the director general of the Northeast Asian Affairs has been monopolized by the Japan School.” Another diplomatic source in Tokyo said, “The framework of diplomacy in Northeast Asia focused on Japan and China is shaking. It seems that Korea is feeling a shift in the diplomatic balance.”

BY YOON SEOL-YOUNG, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]