16.10.2018 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Recent Developments in China — South Korea Relations


Following the overview of recent developments in relations between China and DPRK, let us now learn more about China’s cooperation with South Korea in the given time period.

Political cooperation between the two countries mainly occurred at the level of multilateral meetings. The most notable of these was the trilateral South Korean-Chinese-Japanese Summit on May 9, 2018. Moon Jae-In, Shinzo Abe, and Premier of the State Council of the PRC Li Keqiang discussed the development of mutual cooperation and exchanged views on the global situation, including issues surrounding the Korean Peninsula.

Another similar event was the meeting between the Ministers of Culture in Harbin. Participants discussed issues related to trilateral exchanges and cooperation, including the continuation of the “Culture City of East Asia” joint project.

However, the author is more interested in the meeting of the Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Lee Do-hoon and Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and Special Representative of the Chinese Government on the Korean Peninsular Affairs Kong Xuanyou, held in Beijing on August 7. The parties discussed a number of issues, including measures to ensure peace on the Korean Peninsula. Lee Do-hoon called the meeting productive and mentioned that among the discussed topics was Kong Xuanyou’s recent visit to the DPRK. He added that South Korea and China completely agree in their opinions on the settlement of North Korea’s nuclear problem but it is still too early to talk about results.

As to the issue brought up by Beijing regarding China’s role in the conclusion of the Korean War, South Korea’s presidential administration maintains the position that China can participate in the peace process but in fact, the two Koreas and the U.S. can conclude it by themselves.

Another important question was the U.S. missile defense program. On June 20, during a meeting with South Korean journalists, the representative of the Chinese Foreign Ministry voiced Beijing’s position on the need for simultaneous concessions from all interested parties, stressed that the U.S. should withdraw their military contingent from South Korea, and cancel the decision to deploy THAAD missile systems in the country.

On August 4, during a meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of South Korea Kang Kyung-wha held in Singapore as part of ASEAN regional events, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi again urged Seoul to resolve the issue with THAAD

A more important aspect of modern China- South Korea relations is the slow recovery of economic ties due to disagreements on the deployment of U.S. THAAD missile defense systems in South Korea. It is worth noting that South Korea is China’s third largest trading partner, while China remains South Korea’s primary one. Various industries carry different statistics, but it is possible to form a more or less clear picture of the situation.

From January to May 2018, South Korean exports of agricultural products to China saw a 7.9% year-on-year increase and amounted to $388 million. In the same time period, sales between South Korea and China amounted to $126.2 billion, which is 17.4% more than over the same period last year.

In the first half of 2018, China accounted for 26.7% of South Korean exports (to compare, the share of the U.S., EU, and Japan is 26.3%). If we include Hong Kong, this figure increases to 34.4%.

At the same time, the overall export growth was only 6.5%. The increase in supplies to China is due to intensified cooperation in the field of semiconductors and the petrochemical industry. China accounted for 41.7% of all South Korean semiconductor exports.

On May 29, the first meeting of the South Korean-Chinese Energy Council was held in Seoul. During the event held behind closed doors, the delegations discussed the possibility of cooperation in the implementation of projects related to natural gas, electricity, and new renewable energy sources. South Korean representatives offered to finalize the text of the trilateral cooperation agreement in the field of liquefied natural gas and to work together on improving the transparency and flexibility of the LNG market, given that China and South Korea occupy the second and third place in the world in terms of its import.

On June 29, a conference on attracting Chinese corporate tourists to South Korea was held in Shenyang after a five-year break. The conference was attended by 180 representatives of administrations and travel agencies from the South Korean provinces of Gangwon, Gyeonggi, and Jeju.

On the same day, within the framework of the First Dialogue of Entrepreneurs and Former Senior Civil Servants of South Korea and China, the Prime Minister of the State Council of China Li Keqiang held a meeting with senior representatives of South Korean companies (former speaker of the National Assembly of South Korea Chung Sye-kyun, Chairman of the SK Corporation Chey Tae-won, Deputy Head of Samsung Electronics Yoon Boo-Keun, Executive Vice Chairman of Hyundai Motor Chung Eui-sun, and others). Li Keqiang stated that against the backdrop of increased protectionism, South Korea and China should jointly protect the principles of free trade which is an important part of the regional and global economies.

On August 21-23, representatives of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport of South Korea took part in the Fourth China Smarter Cities International Expo 2018, where they participated in seminars and meetings with local experts and businessmen in the field of smart city technologies. A South Korean pavilion also operated at the exhibition.

It is already known that about 200 South Korean companies will take part in the exhibition of imported goods to be held in China for the first time, the Korean International Trade Association reports. The 2018 China International Import Expo will be held in Shanghai on November 5-10.

On August 23, PRC Government allowed the sale of group tours to South Korea in the provinces of Eastern China, taking into account important tourism advantages. Prior to the ban on group tours to South Korea due to the placement of THAAD missile defense complexes, tourists from Eastern China accounted for a third of the total flow of Chinese tourists.

Another area of cooperation for China and South Korea is the resolution of mutual problems. On June 24, the 20th meeting of the Ministers of Ecology of South Korea, China, and Japan was held in Suzhou. The Ministers signed four cooperation agreements on solving environmental problems. However, due to China’s protest, the results of the study on the air-borne transport of pollutants could not be published. Meanwhile, this is an important issue in the relations between the two countries, as according to South Korean experts, pollution in the country is worsened by pollutants coming in from China and not South Korea’s own emissions.

Nevertheless, China promised to actively cooperate with South Korea and Japan in solving the problem of micro-dust. Chinese authorities created a special center and invited a total of 1,500 high-level experts to work on the problem.

On July 5, the fourth round of the South Korean-Chinese talks on the demarcation of maritime borders where the exclusive economic zones of the two countries intersect, was held in Gyeongju. Following the negotiations, the South Korean MFA representative stated that the parties managed to expand the mutual understanding on the issue and determine the directions for further discussion. A second round of negotiations at the level of Deputy Ministers was agreed on.

Seoul and Beijing are currently in dispute over the ownership of the Jodo reef in the East China sea, also known as Socotra rock. Although it is under the control of the Republic of Korea and “within the South Korean zone of economic interests”, China claims that the Jodo reef is part of its exclusive economic zone. South Korea proposes to draw the border at an equal distance from the shores of the two countries. China, on the other hand, favors defining maritime boundaries in proportion to the length of the coastline and other parameters.

It is here that most Chinese Air Force flights into the South Korean air defense identification zone (KADIZ) occur. The last of these happened on July 27 and August 29. Both times the Chinese military aircraft stayed in the area for four hours. Similar incidents also occurred in January, February and April.

The problem of illegal fishing is also under consideration. On August 17, South Korea and China agreed to resume joint patrols of border areas to control illegal fishing. The main reason for renewed cooperation is a sharp increase in the detention of poachers. Joint patrolling first began in 2014, but following the death of a Chinese fisherman, the cooperation was temporarily suspended. The parties have now agreed to hand the offending vessels over to the Chinese side.

The last serious incident took place on September 4 when a South Korean anti-poaching unit detained a 20-ton Chinese fishing boat in the Yellow Sea for illegal border crossing and unauthorized fishing. The boat sailed 8 km into South Korean territory. During detention, the crew placed metal spikes on the sides of the boat and tried to escape. 300 kg of crab and other seafood products were found on board. During the chase, 17 other Chinese poachers were expelled from the border area.

With the onset of the autumnal crab fishing season, the South Korean Maritime Police is taking measures against Chinese poachers. According to the adopted plan, if the number of Chinese fishing vessels engaged in illegal fishing in the South Korean territory of the Yellow Sea does not exceed 100 units, six patrol boats will be placed at the border. If the figure exceeds 100, South Korea will place eight patrol boats, and in case of over 200 vessels – ten boats. In addition, a special unit comprised of four large ships will be formed.

As we can see, Beijing’s policy remains equally oriented, and improving contacts with the DPRK does not imply reduced cooperation with South Korea.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.