By Huang Xiangyang
After returning from a trip to the Republic of Korea (ROK) recently, I have faced roughly the same questions from my colleagues: What is happening in the ROK? Do people there feel a war could break out on the Korean Peninsula?
The look of eagerness on their radiant faces, however, vanishes when I tell them: "Life there is going on as usual as far as I could see and feel".
To be honest, though, my colleagues have enough reason to worry about the situation in the ROK. Even I harbored the same feeling before visiting the country. Just a couple of weeks before I boarded the flight to Seoul, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) had conducted an underground nuclear test and threatened to unleash "a sea of fire" in a "merciless offensive" against its enemies if provoked.
I had prepared psychologically to encounter a people living under tension and fear during the visit with a 200-strong youth delegation. But not even once during my 9-day stay in the country did I see any sign of panic among my hosts. I saw only peace and scenes suggesting economic prosperity on our journey from Seoul in the north to Jeju Island in the south of the country.
The brightly lit stores in Seoul's shopping districts of Myongdong and Tongdaemun were packed till the wee hours of the morning with people, who seemed oblivious to a threat of any kind.
People I talked to told me that they were too familiar with the DPRK's rhetoric. "We have a stronger heart than foreigners," said Shin Sang-jin, professor of Chinese studies in Seoul's Kwangwoon University. He explained that the situation was much graver during the Cold War era in the 1960s and 70s, when cross-border tensions looked more likely to snowball into a war.
But I'm not going to discuss the complex situation on the Korean Peninsula here. What I find more interesting is that our perception of the situation is so different from the reality in the ROK.
Many of us wrongly assume that we know everything, well almost, about our close neighbor - which shares a similar culture, history and tradition. This presumption could be attributed to our growing political, economic and cultural links.
China-ROK relations were upgraded to a "strategic cooperative partnership" - the highest form of nation-to-nation ties - in May last year. That the two countries established diplomatic ties only in 1992 makes the momentum in the development of relations rare in China's diplomatic history.
On the economic front, ROK companies have invested $40 billion in China since bilateral ties were established, compared with $100 million in 1992. Bilateral trade is poised to hit $200 billion next year, a 40-fold increase from 1992. Now China is the largest trading partner of the ROK, and the ROK, the largest of China after the US and Japan.