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China strengthens efforts to curb US influence on South Korea

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President Moon Jae-in bumps fists with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during the latter's visit to Cheong Wa Dae, Wednesday. Yonhap
President Moon Jae-in bumps fists with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during the latter's visit to Cheong Wa Dae, Wednesday. Yonhap

By Nam Hyun-woo

China has reaffirmed its stance of countering U.S. influence on South Korea, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi calling for "mutual respect" regarding the two countries' different interests during a meeting with President Moon Jae-in.

"China and South Korea have been in different situations, but both countries so far have each been supporting the development paths that the other has chosen and paid respect to each other's key interests," Wang said during the meeting with Moon at Cheong Wa Dae, Wednesday. "And we should maintain this good tradition in the future as it will be an important factor in developing healthy bilateral relations."

The remarks are being interpreted by some as an indication that China and South Korea have different interests amidst the rivalry between Washington and Beijing, and as pressure on Seoul to "respect" a more assertive China in the future.

Wang arrived in Korea, Tuesday, and met his South Korean counterpart, Chung Eui-yong, hours before meeting Moon.

After the ministerial meeting, reporters asked Wang's opinion about South Korea's stance on the China-U.S. rivalry, and he replied, "You should ask yourself whether you prefer the U.S. or China," and, "One thing is clear, that China and South Korea are close neighbors and partners that cannot abandon each other."

Noting that 2022 will be the 30th anniversary of China and South Korea forming bilateral ties, Wang said, "There have been many changes over the past 30 years, and they have brought very practical benefits. We want bilateral relations to develop further."

Regarding the possible idea of expanding the U.S.-led "Five Eyes" intelligence alliance, which currently is made up of the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Canada, to include South Korea, Wang reacted sensitively and said that the intelligence-sharing agreement was a "byproduct of the Cold War era" and "completely outdated."

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks during a meeting with President Moon Jae-in at Cheong Wa Dae, Wednesday. Yonhap
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks during a meeting with President Moon Jae-in at Cheong Wa Dae, Wednesday. Yonhap

Wang's visit is being seen as pressure on the Moon administration, which has been exercising a balancing act between the U.S. and China. The two superpowers currently have a fierce rivalry in terms of their economic and diplomatic influence in the region.

On the North Korea issue, China has been pursuing a "freeze-for-freeze" plan, in which South Korea and the U.S. agree to stop their combined military exercises and the North agrees to discontinue its missile and nuclear weapon programs. This is widely interpreted as Beijing's strategy to weaken U.S. influence on South Korea, by using North Korea as leverage.

Beijing has been strengthening its ties with Pyongyang in recent months, with the leaders exchanging letters and attending each other's diplomatic events. In doing so, China has been expressing its voice on sanctions relief for North Korea.

Against this backdrop, the South Korean government has been hoping for China to play a larger role in improving inter-Korean relations, and Moon expressed this during his meeting with Wang.

"I expect China's steadfast support for denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula," Moon said. "I hope the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics will become another opportunity for improving relations with North Korea, following the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics."

During the 2018 Winter Olympics, Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, took part in the opening ceremony, and her participation led to a series of inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea summits later that year. Since then, the Moon administration has been seeking to use international sporting events as a vehicle for facilitating talks with the North.

This, however, hit a major setback earlier this month, after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) suspended North Korea from participation in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Despite the suspension, there seems to be a chance that China could invite North Korean politicians to the Games anyway. Wang told Moon that China will make every effort to "turn the Beijing Games into an opportunity for improvements in inter-Korean relations," adding, "If there's political will, a historic event could happen overnight."


Nam Hyun-woo namhw@koreatimes.co.kr


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