Every night since September 1, more than 160 million Chinese, from President Hu Jintao downwards, have been glued to their television screens from 10pm onwards to watch A Jewel in the Palace. The tale of the first female doctor in the Korean imperial court earlier gripped audiences from Tokyo to Hong Kong and is taking the nation by storm. Women are rushing to plastic surgery clinics to have operations to make them resemble its star Lee Young-ae and spending 7,000 yuan on a bridal dress similar to the one she wore. In Seoul, meanwhile, the eighth Global Conference of Chinese Businessmen opened last Monday, was attended by 3,300 entrepreneurs from 30 countries and opened by South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. Minister of Commerce, Industry and Energy Lee Hee-beom told the conference that improving co-operation with global Chinese business had become the most important strategy of Korean firms. Free of the historical and political complications that face their competitors from Japan and Taiwan, executives from Korea see China as their biggest opportunity, as traditional export markets in Japan, the United States and Europe mature and profit margins get slim. In the 13 years since the two countries normalised diplomatic relations, China has become South Korea's number one export market, trading partner and destination for foreign investment, which, at US$27 billion, accounts for about 10 per cent of China's total foreign direct investment. According to a report by LG Research, exports to China last year accounted for two percentage points of South Korea's GDP growth, with 1.5 million of the 22.2 million working population dependant on the China market. There are 130,000 Koreans learning Putonghua at 379 institutions - more than any other country. For consumers, the most visible signs of this love affair are Hyundai and Kia cars, Samsung mobile telephones and personal computers and LG refrigerators, flat-screen televisions and DVD players. Indeed, Korean goods have benefited from this year's anti-Japanese protests across the mainland Wang Zhile, director of the research centre for multinational corporations under the Ministry of Commerce, argues that the similarities between the two countries explain the close ties. 'The South Korean economy took off in the 1970s and 1980s and only joined the club of rich nations in 1996. Since their development was similar to what is happening in China, Koreans are ready to take greater risks in investing here.' It was not always so smooth. After normalisation of diplomatic relations in August 1992, Korean firms rushed to invest as a cheap base for export. More than 5,000 companies set up in the single city of Qingdao, a port in Shandong, close to the Korean peninsula. But the Asian financial crisis forced about half of the Korean firms to shut production or withdraw. The second wave began from 2000, after the end of the crisis, with production for export initially and then increasingly oriented towards sale in China. The bet has a downside. Already, the phenomenal success of Korean songs, fashion, television series and other cultural products is causing unease with officials who see it as a cultural domination by a 'lesser' country with a shorter history and less sophisticated civilisation than that of China and ask why the popular actress Miss Lee is Korean and not Chinese. Ironically, Miss Lee has achieved the status of a superstar in China and a symbol of Korea's increasing cultural and economic penetration of a country which used to be its teacher and protector centuries ago.