In 2022, diplomatic relations between the PRC and Republic of Korea will turn 30 years old, and Seoul is actively trying to raise relations between the two countries up to a respectable level. This is not easily done, since the confrontation between the United States and China is leaving its mark, and the scale of bilateral relations has significantly decreased after South Korea decided to deploy American THAAD missile defense systems on its territory in March 2017, with Sinophobia often used for political aims.
As a result, cooperation in certain areas is still ongoing, but the prospects for President Xi to visit Seoul – something the Moon administration dreams of – or for a trilateral summit between the leaders of China, Japan, and South Korea remain very unclear. Although the former Korean minister of foreign affairs, Kang Kyung-wha, confirmed the message from Yonhap News Agency that the Chinese government is preparing for Xi Jinping to make a trip to South Korea in December 2020, but at the time of this text was written whether real preparation work is being done for the visit is unknown.
On November 18, Chinese Ambassador Xing Haiming stated that the President of the PRC would visit South Korea earlier than any other country as soon as the situation with the coronavirus pandemic stabilizes. In addition, he indicated that China will work with South Korea to promote multilateralism and South Korean-Chinese relations as a “community that is united by a common destiny”.
From 25-27 November 2020, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Seoul. Various topics were discussed, but the result following the visit boiled down to the fact that “the parties agreed to continue their cooperation”. A “special verbal message” delivered by Chinese President Xi Jinping, and that was conveyed by Wang Yi to the South Korean leader, was also kept confidential.
On December 29, 2020, the Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs, Noh Kyu-duk, held talks over the telephone with his Chinese counterpart, Wu Jianghao. The two sides shared their assessments of the current situation on the Korean Peninsula, and exchanged views on how to cooperate to achieving progress in building peace across the region. Noh Kyu-duk asked the Chinese side for help with revitalizing contact between the two Koreas. Wu Jianghao confirmed that Beijing was willing to cooperate.
During the New Year’s press conference, Moon also underscored the importance of Seoul’s relationship with Beijing, and said his government would work to invite President Xi Jinping to South Korea once the pandemic stabilizes, and the other conditions have been created.
On January 26, 2021, Moon Jae-in held his first 40-minute telephone conversation this year with the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping. The parties discussed issues of bilateral cooperation face-to-face for the first time in eight months. Speaking about the political situation on the Korean Peninsula, he called on the Chinese side to preserve its constructive role in helping resolve relevant issues through dialogue.
After that, Moon Jae-in and Xi Jinping proclaimed that the years 2021 and 2022 would be a period of cultural exchanges between the South Korea and China, and during that time they plan to hold a variety of events in the fields of culture and the performing arts, with joint performances by artists from the two countries, television broadcasts, and other forms of cultural exchange. The parties agreed to create a roadmap for how to develop relations in the next 30 years through a bilateral committee; they had agreed about the need to create one last year.
According to the Blue House, during the conversation Xi Jinping noted that the DPRK “did not close the door to the possibility of entering into a dialogue with the United States and South Korea.” In his opinion, the 8th Congress of the WPK showed that Pyongyang is ready for dialogue with Seoul and Washington, while Beijing itself attaches great importance to the role played by Seoul in reaching a “political resolution” on issues with North Korea, and describes the situation on the Korean Peninsula as generally stable.
Some conservative media outlets in South Korea drew attention to the fact that the telephone conversation with Xi occurred before there was an opportunity to speak with Biden, since the new US leader took office on January 20, and this can be seen as committing a violation of the diplomatic traditions that govern the South Korean-American alliance, as well as South Korean shifting towards China. They contend that Moon should have spoken with the new Biden administration first, but that in this context the conversation “elicited more concern than hope”. It was highlighted that nobody knew which side had initiated the conversation.
On February 2, 2021, Chinese Ambassador Xing Haiming said China hoped South Korea would respect its position on Taiwan and Hong Kong: “In cooperation with South Korea, China will jointly help protect multilateralism, and work together to build a community that shares a common destiny… We hope that South Korea will respect China’s position in regard to the issues of Taiwan and Hong Kong”.
On February 16, 2021 during a telephone conversation, Chung Eui-yong and Wang Yi, the foreign affairs ministers for South Korea and China, agreed to accelerate the pace of exchanges at a high level. This was the first telephone conversation that had taken place since Chung Eui-yong became in charge of the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The parties involved agreed to continue consultations to help prepare for the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Seoul, and they discussed regional issues, agreed to bolster cooperation in achieving denuclearization and lasting peace in the region, and exchanged views on fostering partnerships in the field of healthcare.
Now let’s talk about Sinophobia, which manifests itself in a number of assertions that can be cloaked under the heading “China’s arrogance toward Korea is a problem, but the Moon administration’s submissiveness is just as problematic.”
For example, against the backdrop of problems in the real estate market, conservative deputy Hong Seok-joon is trying to ban the purchase of land by Chinese citizens – in his opinion, a ban is necessary, since Koreans cannot buy land in China, while Chinese investors rake in profits from real estate speculation, which is the key culprit driving rapid rise in housing prices in South Korea. Hong states that the area of land owned by the Chinese in 2019 was 19.3 square kilometers, 14 times more than the 3.69 square kilometers in 2011, and the value of that has more than tripled, from 765.2 billion to 2.5 trillion wons (2.2 billion USD). Based on quantity of land area, Chinese landowners accounted for 7.76% of the amount of land owned by foreign nationals in 2019.
According to statistics from the South Korean Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport, at the end of 2019 foreign nationals owned 251.6 square kilometers of land in Korea, but Chinese property accounted for 19.8 square kilometers of that (second only to that quantity owned by Americans). From 2011 to 2019, the amount of land owned by Chinese citizens increased by 14 times. The share of Chinese among all non-Koreans who bought apartments, or other types of housing in Korea, increased to 61.2% in August 2019, up from 32.5% in 2015. In addition, foreign citizens can effectively circumvent the restrictions on purchasing real estate by financing those purchases with loans from abroad.
Chinese business executives are accused of unethical behavior, or organizing the entry of illegal immigrants, since there have been examples of this. In January 2021, the Korean Supreme Court upheld a verdict against a Korean lawyer named Kang that helped Chinese people “correctly” apply to obtain refugee status in Korea for those claiming to be persecuted for political, religious, or other reasons. The lawyer fabricated various stories to support the claims that these people were refugees, including statements that the applicants would be harassed in China for belonging to minority religious groups such as Falun Gong. Ultimately, Kang was sentenced to one year in prison, with a two-year suspended sentence, and his company was fined 5 million wons. One hundred eighty-four Chinese citizens used the services provided by this lawyer. For his services, he charged from 2-3 million for one application.
During that same month, a 42-year-old illegal immigrant from China was ultimately sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison, as well as a fine of 3 million wons for helping other foreign nationals illegally enter South Korea.
That was the culmination of a high-profile story about how several boats were found on a beach in Taean, South Chungcheong Province, which were used to smuggle Chinese.
The problem of the challenges involved in air defense systems persists. On December 22, military aircraft with the Chinese and Russian Federation air forces entered the South Korea’s air defense identification zone (KADIZ). According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the South Korean Armed Forces, at about 8 a.m., four Chinese military aircraft entered the identification zone on the western side of the Socotra Rock. Fifteen Russian aircraft, including a tactical warning and control system aircraft, also entered the identification zone one after the other. The flights continued for seven hours. The last time aircraft from China and the Russian Federation entered South Korea’s identification zone together took place 17 months ago.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs later issued a press release stating that the two sides agreed to continue to communicate closely on “what can be mutually regarded as a sensitive matter”. The US State Department expressed firm support for South Korea.
South Koreans were also piqued by an incident when, in November 2020, China unilaterally canceled two flights chartered by Samsung Electronics to send its employees to Xi’an and Tianjin. Although Beijing could have given warning about this in advance, the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not lodge any protest, or express its regret over the unannounced violation of the agreement. However, when Japan restricted the entry of Koreans in March 2020, as the Korean pandemic peaked, the Japanese ambassador was summoned to the country’s foreign ministry, and then-Minister Kang Kyung-wha denounced the Japanese entry restrictions as “extremely regrettable”, “unfriendly”, and “not based on science”.
The exact reason for the cancellation was unknown, but it happened the day after Beijing began requiring arrivals to submit two negative COVID-19 test results. Tests need to be done within 48 hours of departure, and cost 400,000 wons (359 USD). However, Chinese people entering South Korea are not required to submit any test results. And they take free COVID-19 tests after they enter Korea.
As part of solving some of the problems that have been indicated, on December 23, 2020 deputy foreign ministers from South Korea and China, Choi Jong-kun and Le Yucheng, discussed a number of issues regarding bilateral interaction in the format of a video conference. It was decided to continue closely cooperating to try to resolve difficult issues like the incident on December 22. In preparation for the 30th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations, the parties agreed to take the necessary measures to create a committee to help foster South Korean-Chinese relations in the future. Besides that, they discussed the issue of simplifying the entry procedure for citizens in both countries, and increasing the number of flights while at the same time observing strict quarantine measures.
But for now, all this is just words, and the author believes that before the end of Moon’s reign there will be no real progress in relations between the two countries.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.