We begin our digest of “PRC-ROK relations in the Yun Suk-yeol era” with interactions in the political sphere. On March 10, 2022, the Chinese government congratulated South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol on his election victory and expressed hope for further development of relations between the neighbors. President Xi congratulated Yong by telephone, while Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said he hoped Yoon would strive to develop healthy and stable bilateral ties.
On April 29, Foreign Minister nominee Park Jin reiterated his commitment to boosting strategic ties with China: “I will make efforts to better deal with pending issues between South Korea and China by realizing reciprocal visits by the two nations’ leaders and reinvigorating high-level strategic communication”.
At the inauguration ceremony of new President Yun Suk-yeol on May 10, Beijing was represented by Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan, the second most influential Chinese politician. Previously, such events have involved representatives at the level of vice-premier, and Wang’s presence immediately caused a stir, with anti-Chinese politicians seeing it as pressure. In a face-to-face meeting, Wang Qishan urged the new ROK President to make efforts to ensure that friendly neighborly relations develop and reach a higher level, and handed over a letter of Xi inviting him to visit the PRC.
But the ROK media immediately pointed out that the Chinese head of state’s last trip to South Korea was in July 2014. Xi Jinping never came to Seoul under Moon, while Moon Jae-in visited China twice during his time as president of the ROK. On this basis, the ROK media noted that under these circumstances, Yoon’s trip to the PRC would look like arriving on a bow and violating the principle of reciprocity.
Separate criticism was levelled at Wang’s proposals aimed at further developing bilateral relations. In particular, the need for the two countries to “properly handle sensitive issues” (for which read, THAAD issue).
Meanwhile, in a Global Times editorial, “Yoon most likely to handle relations with China well,” it noted: “The respect and importance (China) attaches to South Korea will not change with the election of a new president. China has displayed huge sincerity to push its ties with South Korea to move forward steadily and develop the ties to a higher level.” It was also pointed out that the Yoon transition committee did not include the additional deployment of THAAD among the 110 core tasks of the new administration.
On May 16, the ROK and Chinese Foreign Ministers, Park Jin and Wang Yi, held talks via videoconference. Wang Yi congratulated Park Jin on his appointment as foreign minister; Park Jin responded by saying that the ROK seeks to pursue a foreign policy based on shared regional values, with the aim of contributing to shared prosperity, peace and freedom.
On June 2, 2022, Kim Sung-han, the new head of the Office of National Security of the ROK Presidential Administration, had a telephone conversation with his vis-a-vis Yang Jiechi. Kim Sung-han urged the Chinese side to intensify efforts to bring the DPRK back to dialogue and prevent possible provocations. Yang Jiechi agreed with fears of growing instability on the Korean peninsula, saying China would do everything possible to improve inter-Korean relations and maintain a diplomatic approach to solving problems. The two sides noted a marked intensification of high-level South Korean-Chinese dialogue since the inauguration of the administration of the new president of the ROK.
On June 9, Special Representative on Korean Peninsula Affairs Liu Xiaoming and his new vis-a-vis Kim Gunn discussed the situation on the Korean peninsula in a telephone conversation. Kim Gunn called on China to play a constructive role in bringing the North back to the negotiating table. Liu Xiaoming agreed on the need for dialogue between the two countries and said that China would work for a peaceful resolution of issues related to North Korea, adhering to the position on the need to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
On June 28, ROK Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said that the ROK and China should develop relations respecting each other and upholding mutual interests, and Beijing’s displeasure at Yoon Suk-yeol’s participation in the NATO summit is inconsistent with the principle of mutual respect.
But as early as June 30, the Prime Minister noted that South Korea would seek close cooperation with China to peacefully address the threats posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
On July 2, Foreign Minister Park Jin reiterated the explanation that President Yoon Suk-yeol’s participation in the NATO summit was not directed against China. On July 8, Park Jin and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi agreed to communicate regularly during their first face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 foreign ministers’ meeting. Park noted: “We must build respect and trust and cooperate on an equal footing to develop healthy and mature Korea-China relations for the next 30 years.” And Wang said China attaches great importance to cooperation with the new Korean administration to improve Chinese-Korean relations.
On August 9, during Park’s visit to China, the South Korean Foreign Minister notified his Chinese counterpart of Seoul’s decision to participate in a preliminary meeting of the Washington-led Chip 4 semiconductor alliance, but made clear that the decision was made solely in the national interest and was not directed against any particular country. Wang Yi urged his counterpart to think carefully about the implications of the decision and agreed that Seoul and Beijing should build stable supply chains in a spirit of mutual benefit and not interfere in each other’s internal affairs.
The two sides disagreed over the installation of US THAAD missile defense systems on South Korean territory. At the same time, they agreed that the dispute over THAAD should not interfere with relations between Seoul and Beijing.
On August 17, Park Jin pointed out that the future of the Indo-Pacific region cannot be discussed without China, which is an important economic partner for the ROK. In particular, it was noted that despite differences in the political systems of the two countries and divergent national interests on certain issues, the ROK and China share common approaches to economic security.
On August 24, official events were held in Seoul and Beijing to mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the ROK and China. Park Jin and Wang Yi attended, reading welcome messages from ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
On September 15, Li Zhanshu, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, visited South Korea at the invitation of Kim Jin-pyo, speaker of the National Assembly.
To sum up, the arrival of the Conservatives has not marked a dramatic change of course at the level of rhetoric. The Chinese side also emphasizes the importance of partnership and Wang Qishan’s visit to the inauguration is an important outstretched hand.
On the other hand, the difference of approaches is visible and primarily concerns “sensitive issues” – at the meeting of the foreign ministers, the sides made their positions quite clear. The Chinese hint that Seoul’s course should remain the same and its policies should be independent (for which read, not pro-US). The South Koreans emphasize that the policy will be different, the informal arrangements from the Moon era will be reviewed, but that “sensitive issues” should not disturb cooperation in more important areas. Every move towards the ROK’s participation in pro-US structures, be it a visit to a NATO summit or participation in the “chip4” program, is surrounded by statements that Beijing should not worry about the matter and that relations between the two countries will not be affected.
Each of these sensitive issues, be it the “THAAD issue”, Sinophobia in the ROK, participation in pro-US alliances, or other incidents, will be addressed in the following materials due to the limited size of the article, which will be concluded by saying: the ROK government is more pragmatic than conservative and will try (as far as political circumstances or Washington’s demands allow) to refrain from anti-Chinese moves.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.