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For China and ROK, two is company
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Each week, more than 800 flights operate between the two countries, the busiest route for both. Koreans account for the largest single group of foreign students in China (65,000), as do Chinese (25,000) in the ROK.

If these figures are too abstract to explain the close ties between the two countries, switch on your TV set and surf the channels. You are quite likely to find one broadcasting an ROK soap opera. The so-called Korean Wave - of contemporary Korean pop culture that includes songs, films and TV sitcoms - has been sweeping across China for the past few years.

But despite this harmonious tune in bilateral ties, a cacophony of nationalism and irrationality has ominously found its way in cyber space, with an increasing number of netizens from China and the ROK joining the mud-slinging race interlaced with maniacal bursts and incendiary squabbles. It is a pity that a section of the media from both the countries has been fanning such passions.

Issues that have ignited bitter bickerings range from claims to the "ownership" of an ancient kingdom (Koguryo) and a row over the origin of Chinese characters to the successful bid by an ROK city to get a traditional Chinese festival (Duanwu or the Dragon Boat Festival) on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage, claiming it was different from the one celebrated in China.

Though the open display of enmity is still mostly confined to cyber space, its impact should never be underestimated because of the wide reach and huge impact of the Internet. Top leaders of the two countries have taken note of the gravity of the situation and the importance of strengthening people-to-people exchanges - especially among the youth - to remove misunderstandings and build trust.

The delegation I was visiting with was part of the first 2,000 Chinese youngsters the ROK has invited to visit the country in 5 years. The decision for the exchange program was reached between the presidents of the two countries in May 2008. And this visit underscored the determination of the two sides to vigorously expand their ties.

Shin Jung-seung, the ROK ambassador to China, told the delegation at the see-off ceremony in Beijing that the two countries are "destined partners". He brushed aside the discord among netizens as problems that are bound to prop up in an increasingly closer relationship.

Shin Sang-jin asked Chinese netizens not to overreact to rows over cultural and historical issues because they have been drummed up by individuals, not endorsed or supported by the ROK government. "Seoul's determination to push forward relations with Beijing is out of strategic consideration, not expediency," he said.

Ko Sung-bin, a professor in Eastern Asia studies at Jeju National University in the ROK, suggested that both sides refrain from looking at historical and cultural disputes from a national and political perspective.

Indeed, Sino-ROK ties are too important to be derailed by some netizens. The two countries share a common view on a wide array of political and security issues such as the attempt to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Fortunately, leaders of the two countries have vowed to ensure distractive forces do not weaken this strategic partnership.

This is where exchange programs can help.

Our visit ended with an emotional farewell party, during which tears flew, gifts flowed, gam sa ham ni da (thank you) rung the air, and the 1988 Seoul Olympic song, Hand in hand - sung by Chinese and Korean youths - resonated in the hall.

The message was clear: the two countries can break down any "walls that come between us" with sincerity, courage of conviction, and willingness to reach out to each other.

(China Daily July 2, 2009)

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