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‘Special relationship’ with Beijing behind Seoul’s silence on Chinese rights issues

South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong speaks during a briefing in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong speaks during a briefing in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong on Tuesday said Seoul refrained from touching on Chinese human rights issues in the joint summit statement with Washington in light of its special relations with Beijing. 

“In regards to Chinese (human rights) issue, it’s true that there have been various discussions within the international community,” Chung told reporters during a briefing on the outcome of the summit in Washington between President Moon Jae-in and his US counterpart, Joe Biden. “But considering the special relationship between Korea and China, our government has refrained from making specific mention on Chinese internal affairs. And the government’s position has been reflected in the joint statement.”

Chung was answering a question on why the joint statement issued after Moon and Biden held their first in-person summit last week had no direct mention of China’s human rights issues, namely concerning Hong Kong and Xinjiang, while it did tackle North Korea’s human rights problems.

Chung explained that the mention of North Korea was to indicate that Seoul, as the main concerned party to the North Korean issue, will work toward improving human rights conditions in North Korea.

The joint statement between Seoul and Washington did not directly mention China, but it stressed the importance of the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and also of “preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

The wording was considered to be toned-down, especially in comparison to the Japan-US statement released last month, where Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga openly condemned China’s unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea, and raised concern regarding the human rights situation in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

But the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Monday took issue with the latest Korea-US statement, as its spokesman Zhao Lijian warned against Moon and Biden bringing up Taiwan in the latest summit and “playing with fire.”

He stressed that the Taiwan issue is “purely domestic” affair of China and shall not be interfered with by foreign countries.

In responding to China’s reaction, Chung stressed that the Seoul government is aware of the special characteristics of China-Taiwan relations, and the wording on Taiwan in the statement was on a “general and principled” level to stress the importance of keeping peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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