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PARK Bun-Soon

Korea-China Relations in Perspective

PARK Bun-Soon

Jan. 4, 2006

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Outside Beijing, winter was just beginning when I climbed the Great Wall of China, among a group of foreign tourists, at least a third of whom appeared to be Koreans. Korea is becoming a presence in China these days, as these tourists demonstrated. As soon as they arrived, Chinese restaurant workers were outside, screaming Korean words and trying hard to woo Korean tourists. Walk into one of these restaurants, and you have no problem finding menu written in hangul. Outside, direction boards for tourists were also written in hangul. It was striking because at tourist sites in other Asian countries, people are more likely than not to run into signboards written in Japanese or Chinese, not Korean.

The locals were using Korean language to help and please Korean tourists crowding into China these days. The use of Korean language was serving the need of the market. In short, Korean tourists were influencing China's tourism market. The Korean-language signboards represented an indirect statement that Korean tourists were swaying the market with the power of their purse.

Through a long period of history, China had dominated Korea. Korea followed China's annals, and Korean monarchs each year sent tributes to China. The following episode shows how big China's influence was over Korea. In the 15 th century, a Korean scholar named Choi Bu, on an official trip to Cheju Island, had to rush back home on the news of his father's death. But storm tossed his ship, sending it far to Ningbo, China. He eventually made his way back to Korea after much difficulty. But while in China, he maintained his bearings and kept his self-esteem. He kept record of what he saw and experienced in China, and when he returned to Korea, he edited the record into a book called Pyohaerok or Record of Drifting in the Sea. This book is remarkable for showing how meticulously Choi had followed China's tradition and manners, indeed even more than Chinese themselves did.

That's not all. There are other cases where Koreans out-did Chinese in their own culture. Today, Koreans read Chinese characters much as Chinese pronounced them in Fujian Province or in other areas of the southern China such as Guangdong. The Chinese language has evolved with time and standard pronunciation of Beijing is a direct outcome of influence from north. It means that Koreans read Chinese characters much as they were read in the ancient time, while the Chinese language itself has undergone numerous changes in the course of history.

If that indicated how subservient Koreans had been to things Chinese, what about the situation today? Compared to the ancient time, isn't Korea enjoying a vastly more equal relationship with China, its erstwhile suzerain? Come to think of it, their bilateral relations have been never so balanced and equal as they are today. Korea has developed a huge trade surplus with China. Korean companies are ever so eager to make inroads into regions beyond China. Turn on the TV set in China nowadays and you find Korean dramas being broadcast. It suddenly occurred to me: why wasn't Korea transferring its culture to China ? So far, Koreans have been only at the receiving end of Chinese culture.

How long will the present relationship last? In recent years, China is growing so rapidly that the current relationship could once again reverse, allowing China to dominate Korea. The APEC conference in Busan was a good opportunity for us to show Korea's competitiveness in the world and inspire confidence internally and externally. China and Japan failed to narrow their differences over history at this APEC conference forum. Nor did they hold any meeting on this during the APEC conference. Korea can step in and play the role of an honest broker between Japan and China by stabilizing politics and economy. Only through such balanced policy can Korea contribute to equal relationships with China regardless of how rapidly she rises.

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