APRIL 3 , 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 13 Birds of a Feather? Not Quite

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Birds of a Feather? Not Quite
The leaders of Korea and Taiwan have much in common, except on China

The similarities are uncanny. For more than 50 years, the Kuomintang establishment held sway over the little island of Taiwan. Then along comes a one-time political prisoner named Chen Shui-bian, and suddenly the walls are tumbling down. In a region dominated by Confucian and communist authoritarianism, often indistinguishable, nothing quite like it has ever happened at the polls. Nothing, that is, except for the election two years earlier of another dissident, this one in South Korea, who also blew apart an old order of politicians, tycoons and generals, also ensconced for more than 50 years. These upstarts--Chen, 49, President-elect of the Republic of China, and Kim Dae Jung, 74, President of the Republic of Korea--are separated by two hours' flying time and a quarter-century in age. But surely they should be comrades-in-arms, soulmates for the new millennium.

No way. In an unfortunate instance of realpolitik, Kim does not appear inclined to pat Chen on the back for his success. No message of congratulations. No acknowledgment of a fellow dissident bucking the rules with his own clear message--this one about Taiwan's right to exist as an independent David separate from a mainland Goliath. Not even an acknowledgment, for that matter, of Chen's election. D.J., as Kim is known among Koreans, has other priorities. He wants at all costs to avoid antagonizing the mainland, to which South Korea switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan nearly eight years ago. He does not want to risk offending the mandarins in Beijing while worrying about a problem much closer to home: North Korea. The conventional wisdom in Seoul, as in Washington, is that China has played a benevolent role with the North, discouraging Pyongyang from its more bellicose aims, encouraging North-South reconciliation and economic cooperation.

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History Comes Tumbling Down Maybe so, but China's stance vis-�-vis Taiwan is another matter. While Chen calls for trade and talks, Beijing responds with silence, followed by rejection. There is no guarantee that China won't follow through on the threat implicit in its previous maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait and provoke an armed clash that could explode into regional conflict. Where would China then stand on North Korea? Would Beijing be so eager to restrain Pyongyang, especially if elements of U.S. forces on the Korean peninsula were suddenly shifted to the defense of Taiwan under terms of the Taiwan Relations Act?

Not likely. Any move by China in the Strait automatically places D.J.'s sunshine policy in jeopardy. Public discretion by D.J. may be the better part of valor, but private reluctance to discourage Chinese revanchism can only be seen as weakness. Having endured years in jail, in prison hospitals and under house arrest, D.J. should not hesitate, in the interest of democratic ideals and regional stability, to let both Taipei and Beijing know where he stands.

The parallels between Chen's victory and that of D.J. break down, however, on curious historical differences that Koreans and Taiwanese sense intuitively. Sure, Korean kings paid tribute to Chinese emperors, while Taiwan was a remote island province of China for more than 400 years. Yes, Japan in 1895 seized Taiwan as its first major colonial prize, a spoil of war against China. Around the same time, the Japanese were penetrating the Korean peninsula, taking charge in 1905 after defeating Czarist Russia and in 1910 annexing the peninsula as a colony. Attitudes on Taiwan, however, were quite different from those in Korea. Taiwanese accommodated the Japanese as an antidote to oppressive mainland rule. Koreans just wished the decaying Qing dynasty had been strong enough to ward off the Japanese, hated enemies for centuries, hated still more during 35 years of colonial rule. To this day it is difficult to find Taiwanese, many of whom speak Japanese, reviling Japan with the same venom that Koreans do. To both Seoul and Pyongyang, meanwhile, China remains a gentle giant, dangerous only if provoked.

Thus it is possible to see why South Korea and Taiwan--resilient industrial powerhouses, far richer per capita than the Chinese mainland--may respond differently to Beijing. Sooner or later, however, if China does not accept the new order in Taiwan, D.J. and Chen may share common cause. Both leaders know first-hand the experience of dictatorial cruelty. D.J. still walks with a limp suffered in a motor vehicle accident during his first presidential run in 1971. Chen's wife was paralyzed from the waist down in a similar accident in 1985 in which he may have been the intended victim. D.J. and Chen will have much more to commiserate about if the gentle giant goes berserk. D.J. should offer Chen the congratulations--and political support--he deserves. Let the Chinese shout their heads off. South Korea, like Taiwan, has a right to such a display of freedom, even independence, from historic mainland authority.

Donald Kirk is an author and journalist in Seoul