The Chinese government has reached out to new South Korean President Moon Jae-in seeking a closer bond with Seoul, likely at Washington’s expense, urging Moon to “join hands with China” economically and scale back military expansion under his predecessor, Park Geun-hye.
Moon won a landslide victory Tuesday in a special election to chose Park’s replacement, who was removed from office through impeachment following revelations that she had shared sensitive information with a close friend with ties to a local cult. President Xi Jinping reached out to Moon, who lost his previous presidential bid against Park, following the announcement of his victory.
“On the basis of mutual understanding and mutual respect, China is committed to cementing political mutual trust, properly handling differences and enhancing coordination and cooperation, so as to push for the healthy and stable development of bilateral ties,” Xi said in his message, according to Chinese state media. “I would like to work with you to ensure the development of Sino-South Korean ties better benefits the two countries and peoples,” the president added.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry also expressed a desire to deepen cooperation between the two nations. Spokesman Geng Shuang reiterated the president’s message to “work with the ROK side to uphold the hard-won outcomes of the bilateral relationship, consolidate political mutual trust, properly address differences, enhance coordination and cooperation and push for the sound and steady growth of the relationship.”
China’s state media was more specific in what they defined as “mutual cooperation” with the Republic of Korea (ROK). The state-run news agency Xinhua published commentary noting that Moon had previously questioned the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system, which the United States recently installed in South Korea to protect from incoming North Korean fire. China vocally opposes the system because its defense mechanism reaches deep into Chinese territory.
“If Moon wants to improve Seoul’s ties with Beijing, it would not be hard for him to figure out the correct path,” Xinhua argues. “that is, to push for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and across north-east Asia that is now overshadowed by the deployment of THAAD.”
Economically, Xinhua argues, South Korea should look to Beijing and not Washington for expanded opportunity: “With China being the country’s largest trading partner and a major source of its trade surplus, it is apparently desirable for the new South Korean leader to join hands with China and work for constant improvement in their ties.”
The Global Times, another government propaganda outlet that had referred to Moon’s desire to re-establish diplomatic relations with Pyongyang as a “relief” before his election, published an analysis by “experts” suggesting Moon undo Park’s military advances to protect from a North Korean attack.
“South Korea’s trade volume with China is bigger than its volume with the US and Japan combined. They have already felt the loss from the cooling of ties since the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system. South Korean business circles expect the new president to come up with some ideas to improve bilateral ties,” one of these experts told the publication.
“It is important for South Korea to reassess its security dependence on the US and on China for economic development,” another added.
The Trump administration, while sending its warm wishes to Moon, appears concerned that a pivot leftward for South Korea will significantly hurt its strategy to denuclearize North Korea. “It remains a concern that the left of centre, left-wing party in South Korea is going to do well,” an unnamed U.S. official told the South China Morning Post before Moon’s election was confirmed. “But they are going to have to do some coalition building, so I am not sure he’s going to be able to have an unadulterated anti-alliance, anti-trade stance.”
In that same article, a Moon adviser told the newspaper that the president’s policy towards North Korea “is very similar to that of Chinese President Xi Jinping.”
Moon was inaugurated shortly after election officials confirmed his victory. In his victory speech, he vowed to “fly straight to Washington… go to Beijing and Tokyo and, under the right circumstances, go to Pyongyang as well” if it was for the good of the nation.
“I will become a president who communicates with people at all times. I will yield the president’s imperial power to people as much as possible,” Moon told the Korean people.
Moon did not fly to Washington but did call shortly after his victory. The two presidents reportedly spoke for 30 minutes. According to Seoul’s presidential office, Moon told Trump, “the South Korea-U.S. alliance is more important than at any other time given the growing uncertainties over the security situation of the Korean Peninsula.”