South Korea and China to establish ties today

August 24, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- In 1990, when China played host to the Asian Games only a year after the Tiananmen Square massacre, its most evident outside supporter was South Korea -- a nation with which Beijing had no formal ties.

South Korea donated 201 Hyundai cars and electronic-surveillance equipment for use by China during the two-week, regional sports meet. Advertising for South Korean companies, such as Samsung, cropped up on luggage carts at Beijing's airport and on billboards around the Chinese capital.

After the Asian Games ended, most, if not all, the advertisements stayed up, including one huge billboard for Korean Air -- which has no scheduled service here. More significantly, South Korean investment and trade expanded rapidly here.

From virtually no trade just a decade ago, China last year rose to become South Korea's fourth-largest trading partner. And South Korea became the sixth largest foreign investor in China.

Such growing economic links firmly set the stage for today's formal establishment of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea -- and Taiwan's consequent severing of ties with South Korea.

The move represents another example of the practical shift that has taken place in Beijing's foreign policies in recent years, with China's seemingly unquenchable need for foreign capital, technology and trade taking precedence over its once avowedly socialist ideology.

To a large degree, the formal ties also lay to rest a Cold War legacy, the bitter hostilities of the Korean War in which China fought beside Communist North Korea. Analysts here believe that it may help stabilize East Asian politics, potentially pressuring North Korea to agree to mutual nuclear weapons inspections with South Korea.

China reportedly told North Korea earlier this year that it can no longer rely on Beijing for economic support. But a North Korean diplomat here claimed as recently as three months ago that China had assured North Korea that it would not forge relations with South Korea.

Perhaps to avoid further offending North Korea, state-run media here yesterday played down the impending ties.

But reports from Seoul over the weekend quoted South Korean Foreign Ministry officials as saying that China even has apologized to them for its role in the Korean War.

The angry reaction of China's longtime rival, Taiwan, was predictable. It announced Saturday that it will break relations with South Korea, end preferential trading and suspend air links.

"It was like killing somebody," Charles Shu-Chi King, Taiwan's ambassador to Seoul, told reporters. Particularly galling, he said, were plans to turn over to China the Taiwanese Embassy in downtown Seoul.

But pragmatic Taiwanese officials, whom China frequently has accused of using the island's enormous wealth to forge ties at Beijing's expense, likely foresaw the impending diplomatic shift as trade relations between China and South Korea heated up.

Total trade between Beijing and Seoul this year is expected to reach $10 billion, almost double its value last year.

By comparison, Taiwan's trade with South Korea totaled just $3.03 billion last year, and China's trade with North Korea was only about $500 million.

A huge South Korean conglomerate, Daewoo, recently announced plans to invest $21.5 million in a hotel complex in Beijing, the largest South Korean investment here to date. But the bulk of South Korean firms here have set up shop on China's east coast across the Yellow Sea from the Korean peninsula.

One relatively small Chinese coastal town, Weihai, already has attracted several dozen South Korean companies, in part because of a twice-weekly ferry that has been running since 1990 between there and South Korea. The ferry, the only direct transportation link between China and South Korea, is appropriately named the "Golden Bridge."

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