Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha answers a question during a parliamentary audit by the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee on Oct. 30. (by Kang Chang-kwang
Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Kyung-wha announced on Oct. 30 that South Korea would not pursue additional THAAD missile system deployments or participation in the US missile defense system. She also stated in no uncertain terms that trilateral security cooperation with the US and Japan would not develop into a military alliance.
Her remarks appeared intended to help the Moon Jae-in administration change the current frame by sending a clear message in response to China’s concerns that the THAAD deployment is part of a strategy to hem it in with a South Korea/US/Japan military alliance. Indeed, a Chinese government official emerged as if on cue to state that Beijing “welcomes” Kang’s remarks – giving the appearance that the two sides engaged in behind-the-scenes discussions on a solution to the strain the THAAD issue has posed on their relations. Observers are also predicting Moon could have a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the upcoming APEC summit in Vietnam on Nov. 10–11. Kang lent weight to the predictions by saying preparations were “under way for a bilateral summit at APEC.”
The thaw between Seoul and Beijing was evident in Kang’s remarks that day at a Ministry of Foreign Affairs parliamentary audit before the National Assembly Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee. It came in response to a question from Democratic Party lawmaker Park Byeong-seug, who is known as a China expert. Noting that there were “three main important elements” to the South Korea-China conflict, Park asked Kang to clarify the administration’s position on “whether there will be additional THAAD deployments, whether [South Korea is] participating in [US-led] missile defense, and the possibility of a South Korea/US/Japan military alliance.”
Kang explained that the three sides’ security cooperation was “intended to enhance deterrence capabilities and effectively respond to the North Korean nuclear and missile threat.”
“I would like to make it clear that this cooperation will not develop into a trilateral military alliance,” she continued.
The position voiced by Kang is not much different from the line from past conservative administrations. But many observers in and around the Ministry of Foreign Affairs worried the Moon administration seemed to be ignoring the sensitivity of the trilateral military cooperation issue at a time when China was reacting with serious concern to the possibility of South Korea, the US, and Japan forming a regional alliance.
The comments were a response to the mention of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s name and the inclusion of language about “further ways to enhance cooperation” with Japan in a statement from [Moon’s] first US summit in late June, as well as a pledge to “continue developing trilateral security cooperation” in a joint statement from a dinner by the three sides’ leaders at the G20 summit in Germany that took place in July.
Along similar lines, Beijing has raised concerns that South Korea’s THAAD deployment means it is being incorporated into the US missile defense system. In her response, Kang reiterated that the Moon administration “is unchanged in its position that we are not taking part in the US missile defense system.”
“Our administration is not considering additional THAAD deployments. I want to make that clear,” she added. Her remarks amounted to a pledge, with the Moon administration publicly drawing a line in answer to Beijing’s concerns that the THAAD deployment and a trilateral alliance would turn South Korea into a US forward base against China.
Kang also responded to speculation about Seoul and Beijing restoring ties.
“I expect I may be able to announce some related news shortly for the development of the two sides’ future-oriented relationship,” she said.
“I believe these measures will allow us to overcome difficulties in our relationship and quickly enter a normalization track,” she added. Kang’s remarks gave the appearance of having been coordinated beforehand in working-level discussions between Seoul and Beijing. There has been speculation that China may have demanded that South Korea clarify its positions on the three issues ahead of their summit.
Chinese Foreign Ministry welcomes Kang’s remarks
The Chinese Foreign Ministry immediately voiced its approval of Kang’s statements. In a regular briefing the same day, ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said Beijing “value[s] these three aspects of the remarks by the ROK.”
“The Chinese side has always been opposed to the deployment of the THAAD system in the ROK by the US. We hope the ROK will faithfully follow through on its above-mentioned commitments, properly handle the relevant issue and bring the China-ROK relations back to the track of steady and sound development at an early date,” she added.
Chinese experts similarly welcomed the remarks.
“For a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson to express hopes for South Korea’s implementation [of its position] is an indication that China plans to accept things at this level and bring the situation to a conclusion,” said Peking University professor Jin Jingyi in a telephone interview with the Hankyoreh.
“There was also probably a feeling that it benefits neither side to continue dragging things out conflict without resolving the,” he added.
Jin also predicted the two sides were “likely to work quickly now that they have entered relationship-mending mode,” adding that a “schedule for a bilateral summit or China visit by President Moon Jae-in could emerge shortly.”
The developments are raising expectations that the South Korean and Chinese leaders could sit down together at the APEC summit early next month. If a summit does happen in the near future, it could prove decisive in smoothing over the THAAD conflict and getting relations back on track. Observers in and around the Blue House had predicted relations with Beijing might improve after the CCP National Congress, which saw the launch of the Xi administration’s second term on Oct. 18–24. The first signs of warmth in the two sides’ relationship for some time were also recently seen in the Oct. 13 extension of their current swap deal deadline and their first defense ministers’ summit in two years on Oct. 24.
On the question of whether a summit would be happening, Kang said on Oct. 30 that preparations were “under way for a bilateral summit at APEC.” Regarding the possibility of Moon visiting China before mid-December, she replied, “We are working to enable it to happen within the year.”
Sungkyun University of China Studies director Lee Hee-ok said South Korea and China “seem to have found the momentum” to improve ties.
“The next stage after keeping the status quo without additional THAAD deployments is to explain South Korea’s strategic intentions,” he suggested.
Professor Moon Heung-ho of the Hanyang University Graduate School of International Studies said Seoul and Beijing “agreed that they need to find a way out on the THAAD issue with Xi Jinping beginning his second term and [US President Donald] Trump’s visit coming up.”
Meanwhile, the new South Korean and Chinese senior representatives to the Six-Party Talks on the North Korean nuclear issue are holding their first meeting in Beijing on Oct. 31. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on Oct. 30 that Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Lee Do-hoon “is scheduled to hold a meeting of Six-Party Talks chief negotiators on Oct. 31 with Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister and Special Representative on Korean Peninsula Affairs Kou Xuanyou.”
“The two sides will be holding in-depth discussions on ideas for cooperation to peacefully and diplomatically resolve the North Korean nuclear issue,” the ministry said.
By Kim Ji-eun, Kim Bo-hyeop, Noh Ji-won, staff reporters and Kim Oi-hyun, Beijing correspondent
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