Experts warn Yoon’s criticism of China’s envoy could fuel worsening relations with Beijing

Posted on : 2023-06-14 17:30 KST Modified on : 2023-06-14 17:30 KST
Some experts have raised concerns about Yoon’s direct criticism of the ambassador, calling it “inappropriate”
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at a Cabinet meeting at the presidential office in Seoul on June 13. (presidential office pool photo)
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at a Cabinet meeting at the presidential office in Seoul on June 13. (presidential office pool photo)

In a continuing war of words between the South Korean and Chinese governments over the public criticism of the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s foreign policy by the Chinese ambassador to Seoul, the South Korean president stepped into the fray on Tuesday. This direct involvement of the highest level of leadership, targeting a foreign ambassador, has further escalated the conflict between the two countries.

Yoon’s critique of Ambassador Xing Haiming was delivered during a closed-door Cabinet meeting at the presidential office in Yongsan, Seoul. The president reportedly stated, “South Korea-China relations have always been predicated on the principles of mutual respect, fostering friendship, and pursuing common interests. However, the South Korean people are unsettled by the inappropriate conduct of the Chinese ambassador.”

Yoon was referring to Xing’s public criticism of his administration for US-leaning foreign policies during a meeting with Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, at Xing’s residence last week. The Chinese ambassador also warned that those “betting that the US would be victorious over China” would “certainly come to regret that.”

According to those present at the meeting, Yoon furthermore stated, “Many people compare Ambassador Xing to Yuan Shikai. I hear our businesspeople are lining up to meet him.” He added, however, that “the comments made [on June 8] were not appropriate.” Yoon also reportedly emphasized issues such as national esteem, reciprocity, and the principle of mutual respect during his remarks.

Yuan Shikai was a prominent figure during the Qing dynasty notorious for interfering in Korea’s domestic affairs during the late Joseon period. Yoon’s reference to him seemingly hinted at the widespread comparisons being made between Yuan and Xing.

The Chinese ambassador’s audacious and openly critical comments about the South Korean government during a meeting with the opposition party leader has incensed the presidential office. An official from the presidential office told Hankyoreh, “No ambassador should speak about the government of their host country in this manner,” adding, “His blunt comments have infringed upon our national interests and sovereignty, and the President addressed this matter because it pertains to our sovereignty.\"

In diplomatic circles, it is widely believed that South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ decision on Friday to “take action” with regard to Xing for his heavy-handed remarks, followed by China’s decision to “call in” Seoul’s ambassador to Beijing for a meeting the following day, rather than “summon” him, were both attempts to keep the dispute from escalating.

However, some experts have raised concerns about Yoon’s direct criticism of the ambassador, calling it “inappropriate” and warning that it could “exacerbate the already tense relations between the two countries.”

Lee Sang-man, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, noted, “With the president’s remarking about Ambassador Xing, he’s backing himself into a corner.” He added that he expects China to respond with more critical comments, implying that Yoon’s involvement has given China an opening to escalate its pushback against Seoul.

Critics have also pointed out that the president appears to be treating diplomatic issues as if they were domestic political matters.

Choi Jong-kun, who formerly served as the first vice minister of foreign affairs, commented, “Typically, such issues are addressed and resolved diplomatically at the vice-ministerial level. The president\'s direct intervention seems overzealous.” He further suggested that the ruling People Power Party’s (PPP) use of the term “persona non grata” appeared to be politically motivated, capitalizing on anti-China sentiment in South Korea.

There is also widespread concern over calls by the PPP to designate Xing as persona non grata, with many considering such a move to be risky.

When a country’s ambassador is designated as unwelcome, that effectively means a breakdown in the two sides’ relationship.

Since the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations went into effect in 1971, there has been just one case of a diplomatic corps member in South Korea being forced out as persona non grata. It happened in 1998, with the mutual expulsion of diplomats between South Korea and Russia.

At the time, Russia expelled a diplomat working at the South Korean Embassy over attempts to intercept Russian intelligence. In response, Russian diplomats in South Korea were also kicked out, leading to a further backlash from Russia and the expulsion of five more South Korean diplomats.

By Shin Hyeong-cheol, staff reporter; Kim Mi-na, staff reporter

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