Has Beijing and Seoul’s second honeymoon arrived?

By Zhao Lixin Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/15 19:38:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The election of South Korea's new president, Moon Jae-in, has given fresh hope of a thaw in relations with China, which have recently been strained due to the deployment of THAAD.

During a congratulatory call from Chinese President Xi Jinping to Moon on May 11, Moon said he understands China's interest in the THAAD deployment and its concerns, and he hopes the two countries can communicate effectively to further improve each other's understanding. Moon also said South Korea thinks highly of China's Belt and Road initiative. A special delegation led by Park Byeong-suk, a former deputy speaker of the South's National Assembly, visited Beijing and attended the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. 

According to South Korean media, Noh Young-min, a former lawmaker of the ruling Minjoo Party, may be tapped for ambassador to China, a move that shows the new administration attaches great importance to its relations with China. On May 12, the Minjoo Party said suspicions on the legitimacy of the installation, illegal transportation of THAAD equipments and the cost/payment should be resolved and it will push for a public hearing on deployment of the THAAD system to address conflicts regarding the issue.

Although the new administration has shown its opposition to THAAD and expressed a willingness to improve ties with China, it is still too early to say the second honeymoon of China and South Korea is coming. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and South Korea. China welcomes South Korea's intentions to improve bilateral ties and would like to keep communication open. But China has also made it clear that it firmly opposes the deployment of THAAD. What can the new administration do now as the THAAD system is being installed? Can they make any kind of modifications or even reverse the THAAD deployment?

In South Korea, compared with conservative forces, the progressive forces conduct a more moderate internal and foreign policy. But there will be no big adjustments concerning the overall understanding of national interests and continuity of foreign strategy. The Minjoo Party occupies less than half of seats in the National Assembly, which means the THAAD deployment may not successfully be vetoed if it is submitted to the National Assembly. Latest polls indicate nearly half of respondents are against withdrawing the THAAD system. So it is hardly realistic to expect South Korea to reverse the THAAD deployment in a short term.

Moon possibly hopes to persuade China that THAAD's main purpose is to rein in North Korea's provocative behavior. However, there is little hope in changing China's stance even if South Korea insists that THAAD is to cope with threats from the North. 

US President Donald Trump wants South Korea to pay $1 billion for the THAAD system, which was viewed as an "impossible option" by a foreign policy advisor to Moon. Does Moon have the courage to directly refuse payment and further ask US to withdraw THAAD, reduce troops in South Korea, take back the authority for wartime combat and gradually realize South Korea's defense autonomy? Having the courage to make these moves would be very meaningful for South Korea moving forward.

It is unnecessary to suspect the new administration's overtures meant to improve ties with China. It is also unrealistic to hope the THAAD conundrum can be resolved in the short term. Conservative forces could still create obstacles for China-South Korea relations, and the US may strengthen its control on South Korea's diplomacy under a pretext of maintaining the historic US-South Korea alliance.

China has cherished the historical achievements made by both countries in the last 25 years, and has often left some leeway considering South Korea's situation. But it is sure that the second honeymoon between the two countries will not arrive if the new administration cannot appropriately resolve the conflict caused by the THAAD deployment.      

The author is director of the Department of International Political Science, College of Political Science and Public Management, Yanbian University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion


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