World News

South Korea’s Leader, Meeting Xi, Seeks ‘New Start’ With China

Posted December 14, 2017 1:05 p.m. EST

BEIJING — After more than a year of frosty relations bordering on hostile, South Korea’s leader, Moon Jae-in, pledged a “new start” Thursday in his country’s dealings with China as he met with President Xi Jinping, a re-engagement that China hopes will lead to stepped-up diplomacy on disarming North Korea.

The two leaders moved to repair ties that had soured over China’s anger at the deployment of a U.S. antimissile system on South Korean soil. China fears the antimissile system, meant as protection against North Korea, threatens its own security.

Anxious to improve relations with the liberal-leaning Moon, China moved to settle the dispute over the antimissile system in late October, and began to ease the unofficial trade war it had launched against Korean cars and consumer goods.

But Beijing argues that the agreement was only “provisional,” and is pushing for the eventual removal of the system, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD.

Under pressure from the United States not to give further ground to China, Moon appears to have fallen short of pleasing Beijing on THAAD, and Xi acknowledged those lingering tensions.

“China-South Korea relations experienced a setback due to the reason we all know,” he said at the meeting, according to pool reports. “I am confident the president’s visit will be an important opportunity for us to improve our relationship by paving a better way based on mutual respect and trust.”

The two sides agreed before the meeting not to issue a joint statement, South Korean officials said, signaling that China was sticking to a tough position on the antimissile system.

Moon expressed a desire for a new beginning in the two countries’ relationship.

“I believe that trust is most important not only in a relationship between persons but also between countries,” he said at the beginning of his meeting with Xi, according to Yonhap, the South Korean news agency.

In an interview with the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV before leaving Seoul, Moon tried to satisfy China, saying Beijing did not need to worry about the antimissile system because South Korea would ensure that its radar did not penetrate far into Chinese territory.

“We will make sure THAAD does not violate China’s security beyond its original purpose of defending South Korea against North Korean missiles,” Moon told the broadcaster. “And the U.S. has guaranteed this as well on multiple occasions.”

Moon arrived in China after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson proposed in Washington on Tuesday that the United States sit down to talks with North Korea without preconditions beyond a pause in its nuclear testing.

The White House later knocked back Tillerson’s conciliatory comments. Still, his remarks served to highlight China’s own suggestion of “freeze-for-freeze” as the basis of talks. Under that idea, North Korea would freeze its nuclear weapons program in return for the United States and South Korea halting their military exercises around the Korean Peninsula.

Moon, who leans in Xi’s direction about the need for diplomacy to cool tensions on the peninsula, showed no sign of agreeing to the Chinese proposal, and analysts doubted it would get traction.

“I don’t think South Korea will go for it,” said Yun Sun, an analyst at the Stimson Center in Washington. “And North Korea has not agreed to it.”

There was no mention in Beijing on Wednesday of Tillerson’s eye-catching statement that the United States had won China’s agreement on the need to secure nuclear sites in North Korea in the event that its government, a longtime ally, collapsed.

The secretary also said the United States had assured China that if U.S. troops had to enter North Korea in event of a conflict, they would “retreat” to South Korea afterward.

On the first full day of Moon’s visit, China tried to show that economic relations, at least, were on the mend.

Accompanied by a large contingent of South Korean businessmen, Moon visited a trade fair at Beijing’s vast convention center Wednesday where about 200 of his country’s companies exhibited their goods to an estimated 500 Chinese buyers.

The show was marred by a squad of more than a dozen Chinese security guards who beat a South Korean photojournalist trying to cover Moon as he toured the booths. The journalist needed to be taken to a hospital, and the attack drew a vigorous protest from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China. Moon’s big request to China was for Xi to attend the opening ceremony of the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in early February.

Concern over North Korea’s nuclear weapons tests have depressed overseas ticket sales for the Winter Games. Xi’s presence would almost guarantee that large numbers of Chinese tourists would attend. Chinese tourism was once a lucrative market for South Korea, but was cut in half when the Chinese government issued advisories to travel agents to stop sending tour groups there.

Chinese officials said that Beijing wanted the Winter Games to succeed as a symbol of peace in a tense region. There would still be time in the coming weeks for Xi to agree to go, a Chinese official said this week.

After his visit to Beijing, Moon is scheduled to visit Hyundai Motor’s new $1 billion assembly plant in the southwestern city of Chongqing, its fifth in China. Hyundai was one of the companies most severely hit by the government urging Chinese consumers to boycott South Korean products.