The Korea Herald


[Hwang’s China and the World] 30 years of Korea-China diplomatic relations: More gains than losses

By Choi He-suk

Published : Aug. 24, 2022 - 09:49

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Kwon Byong-hyon, Korea’s ambassador to China from 1998 to 2000 (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) Kwon Byong-hyon, Korea’s ambassador to China from 1998 to 2000 (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Wednesday marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Korea and China. Both Seoul and Beijing opened a new era by establishing a good, neighborly friendship based on the principle of reciprocal equality and peaceful coexistence and by signing a joint statement supporting “One China” and “Peaceful Unification of the Korean Peninsula” in Beijing. The establishment of Korea-China diplomatic relations was meaningful in terms of history and civilization, from the viewpoint that the two countries reconciled the hostilities of the past, and led the post-Cold War era in Northeast Asia. In the past 30 years, Korea-China relations have made great strides in many areas, from politics, economy and society to culture, diplomacy and security.

The establishment of Korea-China diplomatic ties was a significant turning point in Northeast Asia, and both countries have grown into key countries in the international community. China, along with the United States, has emerged as a major leader on the international stage. In recent years, a number of sensitive issues such as the US-China competition, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense and economic security have laid bare the intrinsic instability that underlies Korea-China relations.

However, we cannot deny that we have witnessed more gains than losses in general. Today’s discussion invites former Ambassador Kwon Byong-hyon, who was in charge of negotiations on Korea-China diplomatic relations 30 years ago, and was there for the historical moment in Beijing when the agreement to open formal ties between Korea and China was signed. He helped facilitate normalization of ties and was also the ambassador to China from 1998 to 2000. He is currently the chairman of the Korea-China Culture & Youth Association and an NGO called Future Forest to help reduce desertification and sandstorms by planting trees in China.

Hwang: How do you see the historical value of Korea-China diplomatic relations?

Kwon: It would be really encouraging if we had this talk when the atmosphere between Korea and China was in a positive cycle. As the overall atmosphere is not reviving so well, it is quite regretful we are having this conversation amid the current flow. At the bilateral level between Korea and China, I believe the two countries’ diplomatic relations are in a sense of restoration of history. In fact, it has been centuries since we were overwhelmed by Western civilization, but the influence of Eastern civilization was significant and has maintained the mainstream for the longest time in human history. However, during the 18th-19th century, as the Eastern civilization centered on China started to shift, it confronted a crisis. And when we talk about the Eastern civilization centered on China, there was Joseon (now Korea) in the closest distance. This is why a large number of scholars in China and Korean studies say that the Eastern civilization was not created by China alone, but it could be said that it was founded by Joseon and China together. But then, the Eastern civilization lost its status to the Western civilization even though it was the mainstream, because it was too conceited. This led China and Korea to suffer a lot throughout the history. In this respect, I believe that diplomatic relations between Korea and China have provided a great starting point in the sense of the restoration of history or the restoration to a certain level.

Hwang: Are there any behind-the-scenes moments you can share from the forming of the agreement?

Kwon: Actually the establishment of diplomatic relations between Korea and China was a top confidential issue at the time, and both countries had certain groups opposing this establishment. Kim Il-sung was still alive at the time, China was in no position to fully ignore what he claims. Back then Kim Il-sung used to visit China once a year by train and met all the people he wanted to meet, and the last time he met (former Chinese leader) Deng Xiaoping was in November 1991. As known, Kim Il-sung told Deng not to establish diplomatic relations between Korea at least in the near future, and in case Deng has to, Kim Il-sung requested him to do so after North Korea establishes diplomatic relations with the US, or as a cross deal between South Korea-China and the US-North Korea at least at the same time. However, in such a circumstance, diplomatic relations between Korea and China could be achieved despite the opinions of many opponents because Deng made the decision in the end. Compared to how it was in China, Korea had fewer opponents than China did, as Korea was promoting the Northern policy. However, until then, pro-Taiwanism had a great influence on Korean politics or the mainstream society. Also from the perspective of Taiwan, it has been giving a lot of funding and effort to Korea, as Korea was the most important diplomatic country to Taiwan at that time.

Hwang: What did you do to succeed in establishing Korea-China diplomatic relations beyond the position of North Korea and Taiwan, and the influence of opposition within each country?

Kwon: We had to step into the process with a very limited number of key members in strict confidence. In addition, in case the establishment happens to fail, it would bring a negative impact on the upcoming presidential election in Korea as well as on China in domestic. Therefore, this whole process was a highly concentrated effort. A lot of people who were involved in the process, including myself, dealt with this situation in very strict confidence and kept it secret even to our families. The first and second meetings were held at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, and the last one was in Korea. Negotiations for the two most important diplomatic issues, the joint statement of diplomatic relations between Korea and China and the memorandums of understanding, had gone on for the whole night and had to be confirmed. That is why Minister Lee Sang-ok, Chief Secretary Kim Chong-hwi, and the head of the National Security Agency Investigation were entrusted by the president and had to handle all the decisions on the spot including checking whether they would sign or not that night, so no information, not even a bit, would leak out.

Hwang: What is the most different thing about China today compared to when you visited back in 1992?

Kwon: First of all, I would say the color of the city Beijing has changed the most. As I remember, the overall tone of Beijing in 1992 was rather gray or like ash. That was what I felt from the very first moment I got off the plane. I am not sure if it was because of sand dust and coal, but the whole city was gloomy and stuffy. However, every time I visited China, maybe dozens of times a year after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Korea and China, the gray background surrounding the city began to turn into something else little by little. Beijing was getting brighter, bigger and a bit more colorful. It was just like how the light gets brighter.

Hwang: Was there any change in China’s attitude toward Korea as its national power rapidly grew?

Kwon: I just think China’s attitude changed on a case by case basis, rather than (just) being domineering as it rose. When I first visited Beijing, it did not have much access from and to the outside world as a socialist country, so its attitude and feelings were quite tough, like the inter-Korean relations. On the other hand, after the diplomatic relationship was established, exchanges between the two countries poured out like a flood of water from a dam that had been completely locked down. There was a great change -- just like the (idiom) that describes how the “blue seas turned into mulberry fields” -- before and after the diplomatic relations, and these exchanges were not limited to certain areas but were all over the fields.

Hwang: What do you think China’s reason was to determine the establishment of diplomatic relations with Korea?

Kwon: Through the establishment, China also benefited tremendously, as Deng envisioned. Since Deng pushed for reform and opening up, there were certain expectations in the West, and the US responded to China’s steps toward capitalism with its own vision. However, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest completely destroyed all Western countries‘ hopes and visions toward China, and the Western powers, blaming China’s communism, withdrew capital from China. Deng was pretty shocked and concerned at the moves, and I assume his master card at the time was the establishment of diplomatic relations with Korea. In other words, in order to promote economic growth and to reach a certain level of development into capitalism, China did not have the current status at the time, but it tried to overcome the crisis through diplomatic relations with Korea, which has already grown and settled down very rapidly in the international community.

Hwang: You were one of those who helped make history on site. I wonder what that would feel like.

Kwon: When the China department was newly established at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1973 as a part of the Southeast Asia department, I refused to be the chief in the Southeast Asia department and chose to be the one in the China department. I already had a dream about China‘s further growth and the establishment of diplomatic relations between Korea and China since then. When I studied at the University of Pittsburgh in 1967, I came across a whole new world in one class, during which I remember being told: “It is true that the Cold War between the East and West exists now, but it is practically collapsing. The conflict between China and the Soviet Union is rather much more serious than the conflict between the US and China.” From then on, I began to draw a big vision of relations with China. For this reason, I put more weight and focused on the China department than the Southeast Asia department. Also, President Park Chung-hee also paid attention to relations with China after the June 23 Declaration in 1973, and the atmosphere for diplomatic relations between Korea and China was already sprouting, so there was no reason for me to be interested in other departments.

Hwang: The establishment of diplomatic relations with China happened about 20 years after you dreamt about it. You must have spent a lot of time and concerned about it till then.

Kwon: Indeed. Until the actual diplomatic relations were established, I personally was concerned and worried about whether this would be really possible. Fortunately, however, I think that Deng, this outstanding figure, knew how to use Korea as an international political element very well, that Korea played a decisive role in China’s reform and opening up.

Hwang: The culmination of Korea’s Northern Policy was the establishment of diplomatic relations between Korea and China. However, is there any particular reason why diplomatic relations between Korea and Russia took place before between Korea and China?

Kwon: I think there are differences in diplomatic relations between Korea and China and Korea and Russia. First of all, (former Soviet Union leader) Mikhail Gorbachev internationally chose to establish Korea-Russia diplomatic relations as Russia had no other special alternative after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, if we look at Korea-China relations, North Korea‘s Kim Il-sung was alive at the time, and Kim Il-sung was in fact very influential in China. From China’s view, North Korea became a more important country after the Sino-Soviet conflict and it ultimately was a strategic partner that China could not lose. In other words, I guess as long as North Korea was there, led by the absolute existence of Kim Il-sung, it was inevitable that establishing diplomatic relations between Korea and China was more difficult to achieve and followed after the one between Korea and Russia.

Hwang: Even if Deng Xiaoping promoted Korea-China diplomatic relations with the strategy that you have previously mentioned, can we say that Korea-China diplomatic relations would not have been guaranteed if Korea did not implement the Northern policy?

Kwon: Yes, I also think so. (Former) President Roh Tae-woo played an essential role in actually establishing diplomatic relations between Korea and China. I guess Roh personally wanted to make his mark in history during his term, and he actively promoted diplomatic relations with China and Russia as a very important strategy to strengthen his political position in the democratization process since the three parties merged. In that sense, Roh provided thorough support and fully delegated his authority during the process of establishment of diplomatic relations between Korea and China. I do not think this diplomatic relationship between Korea and China would have been possible without Roh’s will and faith.

Hwang: Then what could be our choices in dealing with a stronger China?

Kwon: Historically, China was an empire from its origin and was forming a great power in the international community. In fact, China’s neighbors have never been on par with China, and China sees itself as the center of the world. Again, it is China’s traditional perspective to see the rest as the periphery. After modern times, China went through a major crisis and started to fall, but it gained power again and now it is at the level of competing with the US. I think Korea’s role in China’s rise was quite critical, and at the same time, China’s influence was also great to Korea in reaching today’s status. We should not deny these historical facts.

Hwang: It seems the outcome would be great only when businesses, academia, and governments come all together in building policies toward China.

Kwon: Based on my experiences from the time back in when I was in the field, the reports and meetings or opinions from scholars were greatly helpful in the real diplomacy and I also have applied their comments. I believe the diplomatic experience and expertise from the field and the theories and opinions of scholars need to be balanced. In other words, the macro perspective (like a telescope) that scholars look at the overall flow of diplomatic relations and the micro perspective (like a microscope) and efforts of experts working directly in the field should collaborate together.

Hwang: You are currently running a private organization, the Future Forest. I heard the youth from both Korea and China plant trees in the desert in your program. Please share with us about the achievements of the activities.

Kwon: I personally believed that I had diligently lived my days as a Korean citizen and as a diplomat in the mid-20th century, when the international political turbulence emerged. However, after I left office, I came to think that maybe we had taken the future assets of the finite planet ahead of time. Then I met the conclusion that I have wasted my life, thinking that I had exploited the assets of future generations, and I was ashamed of it. Starting from these concerns, I launched the Future Forest in 1999. I have continued this activity with future generations for more than 20 years to pay off our debts with actions to save the Earth, not just by words.

Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of the Division of International Studies at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation. This discussion was assisted by researcher Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan.