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China: The Giant Awakens : South Korea

June 15, 1993|Teresa Watanabe

SEOUL — Ambivalence.

To South Koreans, sitting directly in the shadow of the awakening giant of China is a distinctly mixed blessing. They see abundant economic opportunity in China's massive market, natural resources and cheap labor. They see a helpful agent of influence to prod their intransigent northern brother, Pyongyang, to renounce nuclear weapons and remove the biggest roadblock to reunification.

But South Koreans also see a formidable economic competitor, pushing them out of markets for agricultural produce, toys, shoes and low-end electronic goods with unbeatably low costs. They see an emerging military powerhouse and uneasily recall China's 200 or so invasions over their shared 2,000-year history.

And they see the worrisome potential for Koreans finding themselves trapped politically and economically between Asia's two titans--China and Japan.

"Sometimes we joke and say we wish our peninsula could be moved to another location in the Pacific--like the Fiji Islands," said one government official.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 22, 1993 Home Edition World Report Part H Page 5 Column 5 World Report Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Korean monument--A photograph in last week's special edition "China: The Giant Awakens" was incorrectly identified as the Secret Garden in Seoul. It showed the throne hall of Ch'angdokkung Palace, adjacent to the Secret Garden.

Park Doo Bok, a Chinese studies professor with the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, is optimistic. Economically, he sees China as the antidote for rising protectionism and declining markets in the West. China's robust annual economic growth rate of 8% to 9%--and a gross national product that some experts predict will surpass that of the United States by the year 2010--can't help but bestow some benefits on Korea, Park argues.

Indeed, even though the two former enemies re-established diplomatic relations just last year, China has already become South Korea's third-largest trading partner, after the United States and Japan.

Trade volume skyrocketed by 41% last year, to $8.2 billion. Exports jumped 89.5%, boosted by sales of Korean textile and leather, iron and steel products, electronics and petrochemicals, all to feed China's growing industrial machine. Imports grew by 8.3%, mostly maize, textiles, cement and coal.

And despite the hand-wringing by much of South Korean industry, a recent Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry survey found that Korean products still ranked far above Chinese goods in design, quality and marketability.

Park also plays down the military threat, saying that China's intentions are mostly defensive and a natural consequence of wanting to protect its growing economic interests around the world.

Others, however, see a darker side.

"Korean farmers are suddenly faced with the merciless onslaught of Chinese agricultural products," said Oh Hong Myung of the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation. Chinese agricultural imports nearly tripled to $1.1 billion in 1992 from $417 million in 1990. Countless other products, ranging from ginseng to sesame, are being smuggled in.

Oh wants the two nations to supply each other with only those products they can't grow well themselves--corn and wheat from China to Korea, and apples the other way. Ginseng, the medicinal herb, is a particular matter of contention: Farmers here say a cheap and inferior product is being smuggled in from China and pawned off as Korean.

More worrisome, in the long run, are potential Chinese challenges in industrial sectors that Koreans regard as crucial. Today's Chinese stuffed toys and sickles for farmers may tomorrow be electronic goods and autos, warned a recent article in Business Korea magazine.

Finally, in the vacuum of a fading U.S. presence in Asia, many Korean scholars and officials express concern that China's growing military machine may be used as leverage to force a de facto political fealty, particularly against Japan. Despite the historic antipathy many Koreans still feel toward the Japanese, and a sense of historic respect toward the Chinese as a great cultural teacher, officials say Japan remains by far the more important modern-day ally by virtue of similar economic and political systems.

Some Koreans, in fact, would rather that the Chinese giant remain asleep.

"I hope," one official bluntly confessed, "there will be another Cultural Revolution to stop the progress of China."

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