May 24, 2002 

South Korea ignoring the facts in air links issue

By Lo Chih-cheng 羅致政


     The run-up to the upcoming football World Cup to be held in South Korea and Japan presented an opportunity and a mood deemed favorable for resuming negotiations on air links between Taiwan and South Korea. A potential win-win situation, however, has ended in defeat for both sides because South Korea is overly concerned about Beijing's reaction.

      Plans to operate charter flights between Taiwan and South Korea during the World Cup by Taiwan's domestic carriers have been in the works for some time. But the current number of such flights by Taiwan's domestic carrier Far Eastern Transport (遠東航空) is significantly less than originally proposed, while numerous other Taiwanese airlines remain excluded from the route. It appears that most Taiwanese soccer fans will have no choice but to stay in Taipei and watch the Cup on TV.

      Air links between Taiwan and South Korea were halted in 1992, when South Korea switched diplomatic relations to Beijing. The situation has dragged on for nearly a decade. After numerous rounds of negotiations, South Korea's nervous adherence to the "one China" policy has contributed to a failure to find common ground and mutual trust.

      In its determination to stick to the "one China" principle, South Korea has deliberately downgraded official contacts with Taiwan and the status of official negotiators. It has been fussy about the wording of contracts (disallowing words relating to territory and sovereignty) and has been generally wary about China's reaction as far as every aspect of Taiwan-South Korea relations is concerned.

     The obstruction of First lady Wu Shu-chen's ( 吳淑珍 ) proposed visit to South Korea is also the product of South Korea's fear of upsetting Beijing. Yet politics-obsessed South Korea stresses the distinction between politics and economics. On the one hand it exploits commercial benefits to the hilt, but in its diplomatic interactions, it stubbornly refuses to compromise. If negotiations are a "give and take" exercise, then South Korea's "take everything and give nothing" attitude shows a bad-natured desire to have the whole pie.

      More importantly, the South Korean side has circumvented the appropriate negotiation channels and tried to influence negotiations through business and non-governmental channels. In fact, both South Korea's former and current representatives in Taipei have repeatedly pressured Taiwan's foreign ministry -- via legislators, media and private businesses -- to force Taiwan to the negotiating table. This frequently leaves Taiwan's negotiators and diplomats grinding their teeth. Fortunately, Taiwan's decision makers have been able to resist this pressure and hold their ground.

      During a meeting with members of the South Korean parliament last week, President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) said matters regarding the resumption of Taiwan-South Korea air links should be handled on the basis of national dignity, substantive interests, equality and mutual benefit. In fact, these principles have always underpinned Taiwan's position and South Korea has always tried to evade them.

       Given the deepening economic relations between Taiwan and South Korea, a smooth resumption of air links is certainly in the best interests of both sides. Aviation rights, however, are an extension of sovereignty to begin with. South Korea does not recognize Taiwan's sovereignty because it has established diplomatic relations with China. If South Korea therefore believes, or simply pretends, that Taiwan's sovereignty does not exist, then there is no possibility for the resumption of air links. 

Lo Chih-cheng is executive director of the Institute for National Policy Research.

Translated by Scudder Smith and Francis Huang

Copyright Taipei Times, 2002.