Taiwan's rivalry with South Korea reveals anxiety

Economic rivalry has helped fuel Taiwanese suspicion towards cold war friend South Korea, even as Seoul looks past Taipei towards Beijing

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 December, 2013, 3:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 December, 2013, 5:33am

When a South Korean television station wrongly reported in October that a group of Taiwanese fish farms were polluted, officials from the island were quick to react to the allegations.

Spurred on by the collective outrage of Taiwan’s aquaculture industry, diplomatic officers lodged a formal complaint with the station – Channel A – which duly atoned for the report.

The incident was the latest in a long line of spats that have held back ties between the two.” No matter whether its academia, business, politics or sports, Taiwanese who come into contact with [South] Koreans will have stories of conflict,” said Virginia Kuo, a professor of Korean studies at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University (NCCU).

“South Koreans always strive to be the best, but are often unscrupulous in the international arena. As such, many Taiwanese view them negatively,” Kuo said.

Such thinking has been reinforced by several high-profile incidents.

Last month, Taiwan’s Fair Trade Commission slapped a US$350,000 fine on South Korea’s Samsung after the company was found to have paid students to write disparaging comments online about Taiwanese phone-maker HTC.

Similarly, when a Taiwanese athlete was controversially disqualified from the 2010 Asian Games taekwondo semi-final by an ethnic Korean referee, it escalated into a diplomatic incident, ensnaring Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou along the way.

For Kuo, much of the rivalry stems from their intense economic competition.

With about 70 per cent of their economies made up of the same industries, South Korea and Taiwan often export goods to the same markets. This has led to cutthroat competition and a slew of patent lawsuits which have marred business sentiment.

Taiwan is also reeling from the effects of free trade agreements that Seoul inked with the EU and US in 2011 and last year.

In the year following the signing of the accord with the US, South Korea’s exports there jumped 3.89 per cent, while Taiwan’s fell by 4.65 per cent.

Taiwanese officials have also expressed concern over Seoul’s ongoing free-trade negotiations with Beijing.

“Taiwan wants to be able to compare itself with Korea, so it is careful to watch its every move,” Kuo said.

However, despite the competition, trade between the two remains robust. Taiwan is South Korea’s 10th largest trading partner while South Korea is Taiwan’s sixth.

“Both countries actively co-operate in areas of intra-industry trade, such as electronic components, materials and equipments for export,” said Kim Youngshil, chief of the economic and political section at South Korea’s representation in Taipei.

“Taiwanese mobile phones use parts made in Korea and Taiwanese components are embedded inside Korean electronics.”

South Korean cultural exports are also hugely popular in Taiwan. Korean TV dramas dominate primetime viewing, while Korean pop music – known as K-pop – has enjoyed considerable success, particularly among the island’s younger generation.

Tourism is another area where the two are keen to develop ties. Taiwan is South Korea’s fourth biggest travel destination and figures show an increasing trend.

Following a celebrity-led tourism campaign, the number of South Korean visitors to Taiwan in the first half of this year jumped 13 per cent to 169,000. The growth in visits outpaced South Korea’s overall traveller growth of about 9 per cent.

In terms of rivalries, South Koreans seem to view the island with indifference, perceiving it more as an appendix of China rather than a rival in itself.

“Although Taiwanese people see Koreans as their rivals on many matters, I presume that Koreans in general are not much aware of the presence of Taiwan,” said Kwon Hyuk-chan, a professor at City University in Hong Kong.

“I think this is partly due to the strong rivalry Koreans feel towards Japan … Koreans always saw Japan as their prime rival due to historical complications.”

Kwon said Taiwan’s feelings towards South Korea are probably rooted in the comparison between the two as “tiger” economies in their early economic development.

The term, which was coined to describe the economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan during their rapid industrialisation between the 1960s and 1990s, is unfamiliar to most Koreans, Kwon said.

“Korean people don’t dislike Taiwanese at all. To be frank, they just think Taiwan is a nice place to visit,” said Wade Lin, a Taiwanese exchange student at Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul.

Lin said Taiwanese media had exacerbated any tensions between the two by misleading the public and sensationalising relations.

“When in Taiwan, I didn’t like Korea because of our competition in sports and technology and so on. However, after arriving, I realised the only reason I didn’t like Korea was because I didn’t understand Korea,” Lin said.

However, one episode above all others has left a lasting mark on relations.

To the surprise of many Taiwanese, Seoul switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1992.

The move was aimed at lowering tensions on the Korean peninsula, but was taken as a betrayal by Taiwan, which had been a key ally of South Korea during the cold war fight against communism.

“It was a big blow for us. Since then, Taiwan has been unable to develop good relations with South Korea,” said Arthur Ding, a research fellow in international relations at NCCU.

And Ding is not optimistic about the future of ties.

“It’s very slow progress,” he said.