Seoul’s strategic dilemma was showed again recently when the joint Korea-US statement -- issued following the summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his US counterpart, Joe Biden -- triggered a sharp response from Beijing. Despite relatively toned-down language and no direct reference to China, Beijing took issue with the two countries’ mention of Taiwan in their statement, condemning it as interfering in China’s internal affairs.
Chinese Ambassador to Korea Xing Haiming said he was well aware of the difficult balance Seoul had to strike, but warned against forming any grouping or relations that undermine Beijing.
“There is no problem in Korea’s developing its ties with the US. But it shouldn’t target China,” Xing told The Korea Herald in a recent interview held at the Chinese Embassy in Seoul. “China and Korea are strategic cooperative partners, whereas Korea and the US are traditional allies. (Seoul’s) two relations should go hand in hand, and not contradict each other.”
The envoy also hit out at the US-led initiative, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which is widely seen as a forum to contain China, saying that forming an exclusive circle to take aim at a specific country was “fake multilateralism.”
“Genuine multilateralism should be open and inclusive. Establishing a small political circle that excludes and targets a specific country like the Quad is not a true multilateralism,” he said. “This only causes new division and conflict.”
The still inchoate Quad -- comprising four like-minded democracies in the Indo-Pacific, the US, Japan, India and Australia -- has stoked intense debate here on whether Seoul should take part in an expanded version of the group if it receives an official invite. Washington could push further for its key Asian ally to join the club, but Seoul is apparently wary that the decision could jeopardize its ties with Beijing.
Reiterating China’s firm opposition to the Quad, Xing asked for South Korea to take a “careful stance,” and not to participate in a grouping that targets a specific country.
Amid a complicated political landscape, one of the critical issues between the two countries is the timing of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Korea. Xi was set to visit Seoul last year, but the trip was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“As the ambassador, I regard the visit as one of the most important tasks,” he said. “The two governments are continuing talks in this regard and when the COVID-19 situation improves, we consider Seoul as the place for (Xi’s) first overseas visit. But as to the exact timing, it is uncertain at this point.”
He believes Xi’s visit to Seoul will serve as a critical milestone in Korea-China ties and serve as an occasion to enhance the bilateral relations to an even higher level.
With next year marking the 30th anniversary of the two countries normalizing diplomatic ties, Xing hopes that Seoul will continue to be a strategic cooperative partner for the next 30 years, based on deepening trust and cooperation.
The ambassador is known for his expertise on the Korean Peninsula, speaks fluent Korean and witnessed the history of bilateral relations up close. He brought the embassy plaque from China to Korea via Hong Kong when the Chinese Embassy here first opened in 1992. Since joining the Chinese Foreign Ministry in 1986, Xing has mostly served in Pyongyang and Seoul, with stints at the Chinese Embassy in Korea on four separate occasions, including the latest post as the envoy.
Looking back on three decades, Xing views the two countries as having made visible progress in their exchange and cooperation in various areas, be it trade, diplomacy and people-to-people exchanges, as well as recent joint responses to the pandemic.
But he added there were difficulties as well.
South Korea’s 2016 decision to deploy an advanced US missile defense system, called THAAD, on its soil has hurt bilateral relations. Most recently, the cultural spat involving the origin of kimchi and hanbok has stirred tension among people between the two countries.
The envoy said that such cultural controversy is derived from misunderstanding between the two sides, with media at times aggravating the debate. Xing, underlining the two countries’ shared history and values over centuries, called for more openness and inclusion to further advance their relations.
Dealing with North Korea is another important area where the two countries, as well as the US, could work together, he said.
Xing reaffirmed Beijing’s support in Seoul’s efforts to improve inter-Korean ties and stressed that China had been putting consistent efforts for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and for securing peace and stability in the region.
“With the dialogue on the peninsula facing some difficulties at this time, the related countries need to find ways to break the deadlock,” said Xing.
He said China’s policy to resolve North Korea’s nuclear issue -- the “dual track principle” of denuclearization and the establishment of a peace mechanism, through a step-by-step and simultaneous approach -- aligned with the US’ recently announced North Korea policy review that emphasizes “practical” steps.
“We hope that cooperation between China and the US on the peninsula issue will serve as a highlight between the two countries,” he said. “In this regard, China will continue to play a constructive role.”
The Winter Olympic Games is set to be held in Beijing next February. Xing expressed confidence about hosting the international event as scheduled, noting that preparations were going smoothly.
But in regards to growing calls to boycott the Olympics amid Beijing’s alleged human rights violations, the envoy argued against politicization of the international sporting event.
“Some politicians and organizations are instigating a boycott of the Winter Olympics on so-called human rights grounds. But the related reports are untrue and it is against the Olympic spirit. As a result, it will also harm athletes’ interest,” said Xing.
Citing the IOC’s opposition against the politicization of the event, Xing asked for Seoul’s continuous support for the upcoming Olympics.
By Ahn Sung-mi (firstname.lastname@example.org