South Korean envoy faces tough task to fix ties

By Li Jiacheng Source:Global Times Published: 2017/10/16 18:48:39

Noh Young-min, the South Korean ambassador to China, served as chief of staff  of President Moon Jae-in during his two election campaigns in 2012 and 2017 and knows the new government's approach to diplomacy inside-out. The appointment of Noh, one of Moon's closest aides, shows Moon is serious about restoring bilateral relations with Beijing following the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) issue.

Noh knows Chinese culture well and believes relations between China and South Korea are like those between family relatives.

He thinks China and South Korea are neighbors that cannot be divided and the two countries share common interests. He has faith in bilateral relations and looks forward to restoring them.

A few days ago, Noh said that "China is right to be concerned about THAAD" and that the chill some South Korean companies encountered in China shouldn't simply be attributed to economic measures adopted by China. He suggested the public and scholars of both sides should avoid voicing extreme opinions out of respect for their old friendship.

The appointment will have some favorable impact on damaged relations between Beijing and Seoul.

But Noh's good intentions toward China are limited by the THAAD issue as well as the alliance between the US and South Korea. Based on these issues, he cannot really fix the frosty bilateral relations.

The Moon government decided to install four more THAAD launchers on July 31. Kong Xuanyou, assistant minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, specifically asked South Korea to cease installment and remove the already-installed missiles. The Moon government's action seriously damaged the already shaky relations with China and worsened the situation.

"The feud prompted by the THAAD [deployment] cannot go on this way," Noh said. "I believe that the consensus is growing in both countries that it is not desirable to let economic relations [harmed] by the THAAD issue continue this way."

However, many South Korean companies have turned to Southeast Asia for more business opportunities. The South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy stopped LG Display from setting up a factory in Guangzhou using intellectual property as an excuse. As can be seen, Noh's efforts alone can't mend his country's ties with China.

The alliance between the US and South Korea is unequal. South Korea depends on the US and the South Korean military remains under the control of the US. South Korea exercises no independent control over its own troops. The North Korean nuclear experiments and missile tests make South Korea more reliant on the US and US diplomacy.

After Donald Trump became US president, China and the US have encountered serious contradictions over the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea and trade imbalance. The two seem to be engaged in more strategic competition than cooperation. In the Asia-Pacific region, Washington tends to hold Seoul tight on security issues. 

Perhaps as a delaying tactic, Moon proposed a strategic environmental evaluation of THAAD before finally acquiescing under US and Korean parliamentary pressure. It can be said that THAAD revealed the true relationship between China, the US and South Korea: Seoul sided with Washington and betrayed Beijing. The Moon government talked of distancing itself from the US, but now it is actually moving closer.

Noh wants to do more, but the potential for diplomacy is limited. China welcomes Noh's arrival and his efforts to improve relations. But at the same time, China doesn't expect too much to change despite all his best efforts.

The author is a research fellow at the Research Center for the Economies and Politics of Transitional Countries, Liaoning University.


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