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South Korea and China’s so-called honeymoon

With North Korea gone haywire, can South Korea win over its powerful and often difficult neighbor, China?

SEOUL, South Korea — China has uncomfortably backed North Korea since the 1950s, at times treating South Korea as a direct enemy and, more recently, a wary and reserved trading partner.

But this time around, are Beijing and Seoul on the verge of a honeymoon in the face of Pyongyang’s war threats?

It’s possible. Behind the scenes, Seoul has been carving out the beginnings of a grander, longer-term strategy to deal with a militant North Korea, say analysts.

The South is quietly sewing up old wounds and trying to invigorate its relationship with its powerful and often difficult neighbor, China. Such a move would eventually, in theory, lure China away from supporting North Korea, an uneasy ally that it upholds with trade and subsidies despite criticizing its third nuclear test in early February.

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At the same time, China is a difficult neighbor that South Korea must court for its own goals. But in spite of recent tensions between China and North Korea, “China is the aspiring regional hegemon that has yet to, and may never, get fully behind Seoul’s agenda in the region,” said Adam Cathcart, the editor-in-chief at SinoNK, a blog that looks at China-North Korea relations.

China has walked a fine line when dealing with North Korea, allowing room in its state-runpress for a more diverse debate than usual over its stance on the issue. At the same time, it says that United Nations sanctions are not the fundamental solution to the North Korean problem.

More GlobalPost analysis: Why China won’t turn its back on North Korea

The country will also need to woo China in preparation for specific, even if faraway, events.

For instance, should the isolated state collapse, Seoul will need support for a Korean unification led by the South, wrote Sunny Seong-hyeon Lee in a report in early April for theCenter for Strategic and International Studies.

On a wider scale, South Korea is laying the groundwork for a bolder role in regional geopolitics, some experts say. For the past few years, the boisterous and wealthy democracy — which calls itself a “middle power” — has asserted a firmer voice in Asian geopolitics and in its military alliance with the United States.

But the relationship with China remains a distant one, thanks in part to its relatively short timeline. “China and the Republic of Korea have only really had business ties since the mid-1980s, and diplomatic ties since 1992,” said Cathcart, “and South Korean conservatives like the current president come from strongly anti-communist stock.”

That leader, Park Geun-hye, is the daughter of the former anti-communist South Korean dictator, Park Chung-hee, who ruled from 1961 to 1979. But her family leanings, and her conservative political circles, haven’t deterred Beijing from charming her new administration.

“China’s state media has given her a very positive treatment, hyping her ability to speak Chinese and her affinity with the Chinese philosophical orientation,” wrote Lee, the research fellow.

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“When US B2 bombers flew to the Korean Peninsula to participate in a joint drill with Seoul, the Chinese state-controlled media, which used to vociferously protest such actions, restrained from criticizing Seoul,” he added.

Distrust in the détente

Should voters perceive her as mingling too closely with China, Park may encounter popular opposition.

About 37 percent of South Koreans approve of China’s response to the recent North Korean threats, reveals a survey carried out last week by the Asan Institute, a policy think tank in Seoul.

Almost 60 percent of them disapprove, with the highest rate of disapproval coming from respondents in their 20s.

The generation gap in opinions could owe to the broader tendency of young South Koreans to view China more unfavorably in general, said Karl Friedhoff, a program officer at the Asan Institute, a policy think tank in Seoul.

“This stems from, I believe, the internet portal sites and forums,” he said. “For several years, these sites were battlegrounds for the youth of each country to bash the other, and the young people would have been much more aware of those ongoing arguments due to their reliance on the internet.”

South Koreans regularly cite a number of issues blocking a stronger warming with Beijing.

The most obvious dilemma is China’s support for the North Korean leadership. Beijing toes the line as a North Korean ally, but doesn’t support its actions outright. It has allowed room for a more diverse debate over its policy toward Pyongyang. At the same time, it says United Nations sanctions are not the fundamental solution to the North Korean problem.

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But that’s not all. South Koreans complain about what they call illegal Chinese fishing operations in South Korean waters. They also worry that an influx of migrant Chinese laborers is wresting manual jobs from blue-collar South Koreans.

One dispute has even sucked in the history of a Korean kingdom more than a millennium ago, writes Taylor Washburn in The Atlantic.

None of this completely dooms China’s efforts in South Korea. But both nations are home to two new leaders, and both have something of a clean slate as they move forward in their so-called honeymoon.