China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in Seoul on Tuesday, following his three-nation tour of Southeast Asia. On Wednesday, Wang met with South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong as well as South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
North Korean issues were at the top of the agenda. The Moon administration is making a final push to break through an icy stalemate in Korean Peninsula dialogue before Moon leaves office in March 2022. Since a flurry of summitry in 2018 and 2019, North Korea has stopped responding to requests for dialogue from both South Korea and the United States. Moon is hoping China can help nudge Pyongyang back toward the table – particularly since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made a point of visiting China just before or after his meetings with other world leaders in 2018 and 2019.
“My administration will continue to work together with the international community, including China, for denuclearization and the establishment of peace on the Peninsula,” Moon told Wang in their meeting. “I look forward to China’s unwavering support, and I hope that State Councilor Wang Yi will play a significant role in backing my administration’s efforts to advance Korea-China relations and establish peace on a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons.”
Chung expressed a similar hope for Chinese support in the Korean peace process. Wang, however, did not mention North Korea once in his own remarks to Chung or Moon, according to the readouts from the Chinese Foreign Ministry. However keen Seoul might be on bringing Beijing on board, China prefers to focus on the bilateral relationship, including economic ties and pandemic management.
Wang could hardly avoid the issue, however, as North Korea tested ballistic missiles, in contravention of U.N. Security Council resolutions, on the same day as the Chinese foreign minister was holding talks with South Korean officials. China tried its best to downplay the incident, however. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson refrained from even expressing “concern” over the ballistic missile test, saying only that “We are following this latest development.”
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, special envoys on North Korea from Japan, South Korea, and the United States gathered in Tokyo to discuss next steps on the Korean Peninsula issues. But given that North Korea has steadfastly refused overtures from both Seoul and Washington for the past two years, something will need to change before any progress can be made.
North Korea was not the only issue on the agenda, however. China and South Korea have plenty of issues to discuss in their bilateral relationship which has been frayed ever since Moon’s predecessor agreed to deploy a U.S. missile defense system and Beijing used economic coercion to retaliate. While Moon’s administration patched things up with a pledge not to deploy further THAAD systems or join in the U.S. missile defense network, the relationship still has not fully recovered – and South Koreans are less and less interested in repairing ties at all.
Wang’s visit thus doubled as a way for Moon’s administration to try to reset the China-South Korea relationship. As luck would have it, Moon’s final months in office will present a big opportunity for such a reset, as 2022 marks the 30th anniversary of China and South Korea’s establishment of diplomatic relations.
“Your visit to Korea is all the more significant as it comes when both Korea and China have to usher in a future together for more mature bilateral relations in the lead-up to next year’s 30th anniversary of the establishment of our diplomatic ties,” Moon told Wang.
China had its own points to make about the future of the relationship. Wang offered three morals to be drawn from the past 30 years of relations, emphasizing the importance of mutual respect, a focus on cooperation, and striving for peace. China and South Korea must “respect each other’s development paths” and “strengthen and deepen mutually beneficial cooperation,” Wang said.
Each of these points can be read as a call for South Korea to avoid joining hands with the United States to criticize China, whether over human rights violations or for what Washington alleges are destabilizing, aggressive actions in the region.
To give a specific example: Human rights advocates have called for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in response to China’s systemic oppression of the Uyghurs and other minority groups. China is keen to show that it has South Korea’s support for the Games, and the Chinese readout of Wang’s meeting with Moon explicitly cited the South Korean president as offering “support” for China’s hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics.
The official readout from the Blue House, however, did not include any mention of the Olympics. A Blue House spokesperson later acknowledged that Moon and Wang had discussed the Olympics, but said Moon had expressed hope for the Games to be a potential “turning point” in inter-Korea relations — different from committing South Korean support to China’s hosting of the Olympics.
Most intriguing, perhaps, was Wang’s suggestion that China and South Korea would need to “overcome and eliminate all kinds of interference” in their efforts to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula. That’s a subtle dig at the United States for its unwillingness to back Moon’s efforts to lift sanctions and engage in joint projects with the North. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have insisted that North Korea must take concrete steps toward denuclearization before receiving economic rewards, which is at odds with Moon’s preference to move forward on economic cooperation.
Curiously, despite the forward-looking focus there was no mention in the public readouts of a potential visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to South Korea. Xi had been scheduled to visit Seoul sometime in the spring of 2020, in what would have been his first trip since 2014, and his first during Moon’s time in office. The trip was scrapped, however, due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Since then, there have been periodic reports that Xi’s South Korea trip is coming soon – in November 2020, then in February 2021 – but for now the Moon administration seems to have largely resigned itself to waiting. Xi has not traveled abroad at all since the pandemic emerged; his last trip overseas was to neighboring Myanmar in January 2020.