- - Thursday, June 27, 2013

For weeks, China has been anticipating the first state visit by South Korea’s first female president, Park Geun-hye. She began her tour Thursday, and China’s state-controlled media have been fanning “Park fever” to highlight the “strategic importance” of her visit.

Park Geun-hye will lead the largest economic delegation in Korea’s history to visit China,” gushed the official Communist Party newspaper Global Times. “Her visit will usher in a honeymoon period [between China and South Korea].”

“President Park is an old friend of the Chinese people,” government spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. “We expect her visit to our country will play an important role in enhancing bilateral strategic trust, chartering directions for future development of our relations and promoting exchange and cooperation between us in all fields.”

The timing seems good, as the schism between Beijing and Seoul has narrowed recently: China has shown signs of increasing annoyance with North Korea’s regime, Beijing’s strategic and ideological partner. That tension has paved the way for the warming of Beijing’s relationship with Seoul.

In addition, China and South Korea have territorial disputes with Japan over a few uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.

As the Pentagon readies the transfer of wartime command authority from its forces in Korea to the South Korean military, Chinese military commentators openly stated Beijing’s desire to exploit the perceived decline of Washington’s influence on the Korean peninsula by cozying up to Seoul.

As a prelude to Ms. Park’s visit to China, a large South Korean military delegation landed in Beijing aboard a C-130 transport two weeks ago to start a dialogue with Chinese defense officials.

But any expectation that South Korea will realign its security relationships with the United States, Japan and China during the current visit is viewed by analysts as unrealistic because Ms. Park’s trip is focused on economic and cultural issues.

China is South Korea’s largest trading partner. The South is also one of a handful of nations that frequently maintain a trade surplus with the Chinese. Accompanying Ms. Park are 71 industry and business leaders eager to strike deals with their Chinese counterparts. The most meaningful issue between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Ms. Park is expected to be the free trade agreement negotiation that has been stalled for some time.

One revealing aspect of Ms. Park’s visit is the display of Seoul’s rapid rise in soft power in China. South Korean TV soap operas of court intrigues and Confucian moral conundrums have become popular among the Chinese.

The Chinese men’s soccer team is so bad that many Chinese cheer for the South Korean team, an Asian soccer powerhouse. Electronic products made in South Korea such as Hyundai cars, Samsung smartphones and LG flat-screen televisions, are replacing many traditionally favored Japanese and American brands in Chinese markets.

Perhaps the most attractive symbol of South Korea’s soft power in China is Ms. Park herself. For weeks, state media in China published biographical tales of the visiting president whose parents were killed by assassins’ bullets.

The daughter of a former South Korean dictator, Ms. Park has captured the Chinese imagination for being a fluent Mandarin speaker and an avid fan of ancient Chinese philosophy and military wiles.

State media also took note of the fact that Taiwan’s Chinese Culture University granted her an honorary doctoral degree in 1987.

“China Hand Park Geun-hye: Having read lot of ancient Chinese texts, can sing Sweet Chinese love songs” read the headline of the latest Park-adoring article in all of China’s major media outlets including Xinhua, the People’s Daily, and the Global Times published a day before her arrival in Beijing.

For her part, Ms. Park is playing along and will give a speech, or at least a portion of it, in Mandarin to meet the high expectations of her Chinese fans.

During her maiden visit to the U.S. in May, Ms. Park was embarrassed by her spokesman, Yoon Chang-jung, who acted inappropriately in a hotel with a Korean-American intern at the South Korean Embassy in Washington. The spokesman was promptly fired, and the president issued profuse apologies for the incident.

To prevent similar incidents during her China visit, all members of her staff and the delegation were given special protocol and discipline training, with a specific ban on alcohol and massages.

A special guideline for the China visit emphasizes the importance of avoiding unnecessary arguments with Chinese officials about North Korea, still China’s close friend of “lips and teeth closeness.”

Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @yu_miles.

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