Moon needs to match his will with actions

By Zhao Lixin Source:Global Times Published: 2017/12/17 21:38:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT


It is clear that the Chinese media and public did not expect a lot from the first state visit of South Korean President Moon Jae-in from Wednesday to Saturday. Given the disagreement between China and South Korea over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system, the Korea Herald, citing a Blue House official, reported just before the trip that "although the two sides will fine-tune the statement together, the press releases will be given separately, hinting at discord remaining in Seoul-Beijing relations." South Korean public opinion also holds that at the critical moment of the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between South Korea and China, Moon's first state visit to China would not be an easy task.

In an interview with China Central Television on Monday last week, Moon said, "the top priority of my visit to China is recovering mutual trust." When asked what further measures would be taken to properly handle the THAAD dispute, Moon repeatedly mentioned mutual understanding and said that "South Korea will be extremely careful from here on out that the THAAD system is not invasive of China's security."

On October 30, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha declared the three-point pledge to China on the THAAD system. Kang said that Seoul will not add to the existing THAAD system, not participate in the US-led missile defense system, and not participate in the proposed Japan-South Korea-US military alliance.

Before his China visit, Moon did not clearly reiterate this stance, but simply stressed that "the two ministers agreed to faithfully implement what was discussed in the consultation on improvements in the ROK-China relations on October 31." Moon's sincerity to improve China-South Korea relations is beyond all doubt, but his vague attitude has disappointed the Chinese public.

Both China and South Korea know that the current improvement in relations does not mean that the two countries have turned over a new leaf on the THAAD dispute. Both sides are handling the dispute with flexibility, reaching some consensus in the current stage, but their stances have not changed. 

It surprised many that China and South Korea reached preliminary political understanding on the THAAD dispute, and started to bring the frozen bilateral relations back on track. Moon's visit, although not a milestone, indicates that both governments attach great importance to bilateral relations and have made strategic compromise with an eye to the future.

The 25 years of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea have proved that friendship strengthens communication and cooperation brings mutual benefits. Normalizing bilateral relations accords with the common aspirations and interests of both China and South Korea. Amid the tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the dim prospect of denuclearization at present, stable China-South Korea relations are vital. 

Moon's visit at such a sensitive time demonstrated his valuable qualities as a politician to fulfill his responsibilities. Many experts from think tanks are optimistic, believing that it will be a crucial opportunity for the two countries to bring their bilateral relations back to the normal track.

Moon led an entourage of some 200 business representatives in a move to start another 25 years of China-South Korea cooperation in various areas including the economy, culture, politics, security, personnel exchange and tourism. South Korea's sincerity in taking the initiative to improve relations with China is praiseworthy, which dismisses the belief that hostility is the new normal in Sino-South Korean relations.

Yet both countries have found that the behavior of the other side is inconsistent with expectations on the core issue of THAAD. South Korea hopes that China can impose harsher sanctions on Pyongyang such as cutting off oil supply, while China hopes that the Moon administration can withdraw THAAD. It would be difficult for the two countries even to communicate with each other, let alone rebuild mutual trust.

Perhaps the "mutual understanding" strategy put forward by Moon is worth a try. South Korea has long insisted that security issues should not be connected to economic problems, and China cannot agree to boost the economy at the cost of security.

In other words, if China decides to strengthen its nuclear deterrent and deal with the THAAD system at any cost, it would not benefit state security in South Korea either. To rebuild mutual trust and get bilateral relations back on track, South Korea should make its stance clear and stay committed to its earlier consensus on solving the THAAD issue.

Sincerity is important, but what matters more is action. Moon is confronted with a challenging political dilemma. He has to find a balance between China-South Korea relations and South Korea-US relations.

The author is professor and director of the School of International Politics, Institute of Politics and Public Management, Yanbian University.


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