China’s love affair with South Korea

SEOUL — There’s no question that China and South Korea are uneasy neighbors. Over the years, relations have been tense over issues like North Korea’s nuclear program, and illegal Chinese fishing in South Korean waters, to name a few.

But despite the loggerheads, this week could mark the start of a romance.

On Thursday, South Korean President Park Geun Hye kicked off her four-day visit to China, arriving with 71 businessmen.

After being gracefully welcomed by China’s press and top officials, she will spend the week meeting the Chinese president and first lady, speaking at the prestigious Tsinghua University, and visiting a $7 billion Samsung semiconductor factory.

Her Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, said the meeting marked a “new historic starting point,” while state-run media was filled with editorials extolling the two countries' friendship.

So why is China laying out the red carpet?

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Contrary to what you’d think, the North Korean security threat isn’t the main factor. China, once a North Korean ally, has tilted away from the isolated state in recent years, fearful of its nuclear program.

North Korea tested its third nuclear device in February 2013, and then embarked on a two-month bout of war threats against the South.

But North Korea isn’t the main talking point, even though the two sides agreed Thursday to start a “dialogue” about their mutual neighbor.

Rather, this is a lesson in soft power.

For China, South Korea has emerged as a major trading partner and a cultural force.

Korean television dramas, pop bands, and fashions are all the rage in Beijing. Many Chinese women even travel to Seoul’s Gangnam, the neighborhood of “Gangnam Style” fame, for plastic surgery that gives them the pointed nose and oval eyes of beloved Korean actresses.

Then there’s the economic side. China takes in 15 percent of South Korean exports. Samsung smart phones and televisions, along with the heavy industry of Hyundai, are popular in the country. North Korea doesn’t even come close.

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This isn’t the first time China has been friendly to Park, the country’s first female president in a region that, contrary to Western stereotypes, is actually home to many women who have become national figureheads.

Ever since Park took office in February 2013, the state-supervised Chinese press has hyped up her ability to speak Mandarin and her affinity for Chinese philosophy, writes Sunny Seong-hyon Lee, a non-resident fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Chinese and South Korean leaders have also been easing tensions. In her early weeks in office, Xi honored Park’s request to speak on the phone about the North Korean security threat.

That’s impressive considering that their two predecessors, President Hu Jintao of China and President Lee Myung Bak of South Korea, didn’t speak on the phone throughout Lee’s entire five-year presidency.

There’s also the novelty factor. Park and Xi are both relatively new to office, and may be eager to take the moment to build up a fresh and relatively untested relationship.