January 31, 2008 07:40
"I've spent my entire youth on the Korean Peninsula. And South Korea is indeed an interesting country," said Xu Baokang, the Seoul correspondent for the People's Daily. Wrapping up ten years of work in Seoul, following a decade-long stint in Pyongyang, Xu is at last scheduled to return home on Saturday.
After graduating from university with a degree in Korean, Xu worked in North Korea where he met Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il more than 10 times combined. He accompanied the senior Kim aboard a special train when the North Korean leader visited China. In the Kim Jong-il era, he enjoyed the privilege of flying to parties aboard North Korean helicopters. During two tours of duty in Seoul, he has covered a total of four presidents and a president-elect. He is a China's expert on the Korean Peninsula.
"Nobody on earth except North Korean refugees could have lived in both North and South Korea as long as you have," I joked. "You're right," Xu replied. "Who else, especially among foreigners?" Acquainted with each other for 17 years, he and I are intimate enough to visit one another at home.
Over a farewell lunch with the staff of the Chosun Ilbo's international news desk, Xu discussed two things. One was his impressions of South Korea. "This is an extremely interesting country with all sorts of things happening. But it was very difficult to relay them to the people of China in news stories. Unless they're explained properly, the Chinese cannot understand them. The job was so demanding that I've lost much of my hair." (Aged 59, Xu has surely lost some hairs but is not really bald.)
The other topic concerned China and North Korea. For China's Communist Party system to survive, he said, it must surmount three peaks. One peak has been crossed, another is being confronted and the other is yet to come. The first was ideological conflicts and clashes in the initial period of reform and opening. The second, now in progress, concerns how to adequately maintain the size and speed of reform and opening. The forthcoming third involves various demands for democratization that will emerge when per-capita GDP reaches US$3,000-$6,000. The third peak, if the current growth rate keeps up, will begin in or around 2012.
"China has approximately 70 million Communist Party members, and membership is hard to obtain. Unless you are recognized as excelling in many respects in the group you belong to, you cannot meet the strict party membership criteria. Party cells are scattered across the country and in all social fields. Nothing stirs, even if hundreds of demonstrators stage protests demanding democracy."
Xu's remarks about North Korea drew attention. North Korea is similar to China in these same respects, he said. The North's secret in not collapsing despite so many economic and diplomatic difficulties lies in the system itself. North Korea cannot afford to open itself because it lacks confidence in overcoming the internal disputes that will develop in the initial period of opening, the sort that took place in China.
"The most important thing for South Korea is unification," Xu said. Although he didn't explicitly propose the means of unification, it was evident in his remarks. It involves providing North Korea with assistance in a way that encourages the North to gain the self-confidence to open itself and endure. But conditions must be attached to that aid. Not for our own interests, but to nurture their capabilities so that they may sustain the opening with their own strength.
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