Print logo

30 Years of Sino-South Korean relations: Assessment and Prospects

The conference of Hanns-Seidel-Foundation Korea and the Council for Diplomacy on Korean Unification "30 Years of South Korea-China relations: Assessment and Prospects". China plays a pivotal role for the fate of the Korean Peninsula. But how will this role play out? 30 years ago there was great enthusiasm about diplomatic relations, rising trade and the hope for mutual understanding. By now, this has largely evaporated and many observers rather talk of a new Cold War. This conference brings together Korean, Chinese and foreign experts to discuss the future of relations and a constructive role of China on the Korean Peninsula.

The conference marking 30 years of diplomatic relations between South Korea and China comes at a time when there is increasing talk of a new cold war between China and the "West" (which includes South Korea). At the same time, there are outrageous protests in China against the current Corona policy. Overall, this is not good news for South Korea: Economically, South Korea is still very much intertwined with China, even if relations have weakened considerably - especially since the deployment of THAAD batteries for missile defense and China's subsequent sanctions. China plays an absolutely central role in peace on the Korean Peninsula.


However, this role has changed significantly to South Korea's disadvantage in recent years: while Chinese warnings about North Korea's nuclear program and even direct influence-for example, by temporarily blocking oil shipments-were still part of the international equation on the Korean Peninsula until about 2017, China's role has since changed significantly more to that of a protector of North Korea. Both China and North Korea are among states that, with Russia, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and few others, are becoming increasingly aligned while becoming internationally isolated. As a result, South Korea's earlier hopes that it could negotiate peaceful reunification with China-over Kim Jong-Un's head-have become moot. In addition, there is a creeping but progressive disintegration at the level of civil society and political dialogue: the old formats of cooperation (such as ASEAN plus three or the trilateral secretariat between China, Japan and South Korea) still exist, but they are not really capable of acting. China has fired foreign professors, including Koreans, en masse in recent years.


In this sense, the present conference, which from the beginning had also foreseen the participation of Chinese experts, is perhaps the most politically important and sensitive one we are holding this year. Although, unfortunately, we did not succeed in getting the Chinese Embassy to participate (after much deliberation, the Deputy Ambassador cancelled, perhaps because of the negative signal effect on North Korea), Chinese experts attended every session. Therefore, the conference was not held as a public event, but only for invited experts. Very important experts from leading research institutes came from South Korea, as well as quite a few high-ranking alumni from the Ministry of Unification, but they still have a great influence on Korea's unification policy. Very important was the contact with the former South Korean ambassador to China and former unification minister Yu Woo-ik, who studied in Germany in Kiel and has just written - as a fellow of the Robert Bosch Foundation - a book on Korean and German unification. He is also an active commentator and has just published a guest article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Contact will continue to be maintained.