COMMENT: Tempestuous Seoul-Beijing relationship

KOREA and China have been close both geographically and historically. In fact, at one time Korea was a tributary state of the Chinese empire, a relationship that ended when Japan colonised the peninsula at the end of the 19th century.
In modern times, since China and South Korea established diplomatic relations in 1992, the two countries have developed ever closer economic and political relations.

While South Korea remains an American ally, China, and not the United States, is its biggest trading partner. And there are more Koreans studying in Chinese universities than students from any other country.

Only last month, China opened a cultural centre in Seoul, the first such centre in Asia.

And yet, the long historical ties cut both ways, as was demonstrated last year when a dispute erupted over the nature of the ancient kingdom of Koguryo, which was founded in 37BC.

Koreans have traditionally regarded Koguryo as one of the three kingdoms into which ancient Korea was divided. However, last year, Chinese scholars claimed Koguryo, whose territory encompassed much of present-day northeastern China as well as all of North Korea, was a vassal kingdom of China.

Far from being merely a scholarly difference of opinion, the dispute threatened to damage seriously relations between the two countries since the difference in views could conceivably be used to lay territorial claims against each other in the future.

The dispute was only defused after China dispatched senior officials to Seoul, including Deputy Foreign Minister Wu Dawei and top leader, Jia Qinglin.

Things were quiet for a few months but two weeks ago Chinese security agents raided a news conference organised by visiting South Korean legislators, shutting off the lights and forcibly removing foreign journalists from the room.

The legislators, from the opposition Grand National Party, had called the news conference to urge the Chinese Government to provide better treatment to refugees from North Korea.

They also wanted China to release South Korean activists jailed for trying to smuggle refugees into China from North Korea.

China considers such refugees to be “illegal immigrants” and sends them back to North Korea when apprehended.

At a news conference, Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan castigated the Korean legislators for inciting “illegal immigrants to continue their activities”.

He pointed out that these “illegal immigrants” have been forcing their way into foreign embassies and consulates in an attempt to be given asylum and sent to South Korea.

The Foreign Ministry spokesman suggested that the South Korean legislators had held an unauthorised news conference, pointing out that while one legislator was a guest of the Korean Embassy, the rest had entered China as tourists.

The South Korean Government summoned the Chinese Ambassador to express its concern about the incident.

While the Government demanded an explanation, it did not lodge a formal protest, perhaps because the legislators were with the Opposition.

President Roh Moo Hyun’s Government, after all, has repeatedly made clear that it opposes the collapse of the North Korean Government, which would put on Seoul’s shoulder the responsibility of taking care of the 23 million North Koreans.

South Korea recently announced policy changes that will make it more difficult for North Korean refugees to find a haven in South Korea.

Last week, the South Koreans formally requested China to stop using the ancient name of their capital when referring to Seoul. Even though the city has been known as Seoul for 100 years, the Chinese continue to use the ancient name Hancheng.

The characters “Hancheng” mean “Han’s city,” which carries a connotation of the city belonging to the Han, the dominant ethnic group in China.

Now, the Koreans say, the Chinese should use two other characters, “Shou-er”, when referring to the city. The characters are closer in pronunciation to the South Korean name Seoul.

The Seoul metropolitan Government has said that the new name would be used on all its Chinese-language websites and all promotional material printed in Chinese.

So far, there has been no indication that China would object to this new name.

The Chinese, after all, in earlier years had insisted that foreigners should stop calling their capital Peking and switch to Beijing, a spelling that more closely approximates the pronunciation of the name in Chinese.

All this may seem like a tempest in a teapot but, where national sensitivities are concerned, even the smallest teapot may arouse feelings that are difficult to keep under control.

* The writer is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.