China shakes hands with the new president of South Korea

Concerned that South Korea will change its foreign policy under new President Yoon Suk-yeol, Beijing is trying to move closer to Seoul.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol held an inauguration ceremony at the National Assembly building on May 10 with more than 40,000 participants, including many international diplomats and politicians. The most notable guest face at the ceremony was Vice President of China Wang Qishan.

Wang is the most senior Chinese official to have attended the inauguration of a South Korean president, a sign Beijing seems eager to persuade Yoon not to live up to his campaign promise. the editor-in-chief of the magazine Diplomat, He is also an expert on China’s foreign policy and economy.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (right) poses for a photo with Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan May 10 at the new president's office in Yongsan-gu, Seoul.  Photo: Yonhap.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (right) poses for a photo with Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan May 10 at the new president’s office in Yongsan, Seoul. Picture: Yonhap.

According to observers, Mr. Wang, who has a very close relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, was once tasked with leading the “smash tigers and kill flies” anti-corruption campaign initiated by Mr. Xi.

The presence of China’s Vice President in Korea sends a strong signal as almost no senior Chinese official has traveled abroad since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, with the exception of Foreign Minister Wang Yi. This makes Mr. Wang Qishan the highest-ranking Chinese leader to visit another country in more than two years.

When asked about Mr. Wang’s trip to South Korea, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian stressed that “China and South Korea are and will remain close neighbors.

“We believe that with the concerted efforts of both sides, Sino-Korean relations will continue to make timely progress,” Zhao said.

This is seen as a big shift in bilateral relations, especially when Mr. Yoon has expressed his stance hard on China-related issues during the election campaign. He accused his predecessor Moon Jae-in of weakening the South Korean-US alliance by getting too close to China and vowed to change course.

In particular, he has repeatedly expressed interest in the US plan to expand with Beijing the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea, which is a major security concern for the US.

When South Korea first agreed to use THAAD in 2016, China responded with sweeping economic sanctions that cost Seoul billions of dollars. But that harsh response also laid the groundwork for President Yoon’s aggressive crackdown on China.

The exertion of economic pressure has negatively affected China’s image in Korean public opinion. In May 2021, South Korean public opinion viewed China even more negatively than Japan and North Korea, according to a poll.

Now that Mr. Yoon comes to power, China appears to be hoping to minimize the damage to bilateral ties, according to Ms. Tiezzi.

During his meeting with South Korea’s new president, Wang Yoon delivered Xi’s invitation to visit China “at a mutually convenient time.” China is dealing with the worst Covid-19 outbreak since the first outbreak in Wuhan, so Beijing is unlikely to welcome the South Korean president any time soon.

Former President Moon Jae-in has visited China twice during his tenure, including a state visit in 2017 and a trip in 2019 to attend the China-Japan-Korea trilateral summit.

However, Mr. Xi has not visited South Korea since 2014 under the administration of President Park Geun-hye.

This time, Mr. Wang presented China’s proposals for improving bilateral relations, such as more coordination to “strengthen cooperation on Korean Peninsula affairs.”

“China sincerely supports the efforts of South Korea and North Korea to improve ties and seek reconciliation and cooperation, and strengthen communications to pursue the goals of denuclearization, peace-building and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula,” South Korea News Agency Yonhap News.

It is worth noting that the offer of cooperation on “Korean Peninsula issues” was not suggested in the first phone call between the Chinese President and Mr. Yoon shortly after his election in March.

The new offer came after Korea’s National Intelligence Director Park Jie-won said so China has pressured North Korea not to conduct an ICBM test Nuclear. According to Ms Tiezzi, the move has sparked speculation that Beijing may be frustrated by Pyongyang’s recent actions and is therefore becoming more actively involved in coordination efforts with Seoul.

Mr. Vuong also brought up the idea of ​​”enhancing substantive collaboration in the industrial supply chain.” The same theme was at the heart of South Korea-US cooperation under President Moon and is likely to be pursued further under President Yoon.

Tiezzi said Beijing is likely concerned about the possibility that Seoul will separate its supply chain from China and is trying to prevent that scenario.

Another major concern for Beijing is the possibility that President Yoon is willing to improve relations with Japan, this commentator assessed. Close security cooperation with Japan has long been a controversial topic in South Korea, rooted in historical entanglements.

Relations between Seoul and Tokyo have soured in recent years following a series of South Korean court rulings in 2018 that required Japanese companies to compensate the country’s forced laborers during World War II. However, Japan insists that this issue has been resolved since relations between the two countries were normalized in 1965.

But for now, China fears that Yoon’s move toward Japan will open up the possibility of forming a Japan-South Korea-US triangle alliance in the region, something Beijing has long feared.

Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa also attended Mr. Yoon’s inauguration ceremony. After a meeting between Foreign Minister Hayashi and future South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin, Japan’s foreign ministry said both sides agreed that “they have no time to waste improving bilateral relations.” Mr. Hayashi also sent a private letter from Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio to Mr. Yoon.

However, despite the strong statements that have been made, President Yoon is expected to face many challenges in his efforts to bring about sweeping changes in South Korea’s foreign policy, analysts said.

Attempts to reconcile with Japan are unlikely to be accepted by the Korean people unless Tokyo makes a satisfactory offer on the issue of World War II compensation.

“Similarly, it is easy to declare ‘hard on China,’ but implementing such a policy will be very difficult as the Korean economy is still dependent on the Chinese market,” Tiezzi said.

China won’t have to wait long to see how far President Yoon is willing to go in his bold statements. U.S. President Joe Biden will travel to Seoul on May 20-21 for a summit with President Yoon, an event set to be a prerequisite for Korea-US relations and trilateral cooperation with Japan under the administration.

Vu Hoang (Corresponding diplomat)