|South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, second from the left, talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, right, during their meeting at the foreign ministry in Seoul on Wednesday. AP-Yonhap|
By Kim Yoo-chul
A few hours after Beijing's announcement that South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha agreed with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi to continue to deal properly with the THAAD issue, Seoul's foreign ministry confirmed the matter was touched on during their talks.
"Regarding the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) issue, yes, the foreign ministers had sessions on the matter," an official said. Before the announcement, Seoul's foreign ministry did not respond to questions regarding the specifics of key discussion topics touched upon during the talks.
Speculations are that Seoul maintained "silence" over the THAAD issue because President Moon Jae-in wants help from China to advance his "peace initiatives" on the Korean Peninsula.
Also, with next year's general elections looming, Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) want to patch things up by ending China's retaliation against South Korean industries following the country's decision to deploy the radar system.
At Cheong Wa Dae, Moon told Wang that Seoul was hoping to get China's support to break the impasse in denuclearization talks between key stakeholders as the North Korea-set year-end deadline on the talks with the United States is approaching.
The President also discussed with the senior Chinese government official how to facilitate high-level exchanges and arrange a possible state visit to South Korea by Chinese President Xi Jinping early next year.
It remains uncertain whether or not South Korea would ask the United States to withdraw the THAAD system installed years ago on a former golf course. At the time of installation, Washington said the deployment was mostly aimed at shooting down medium-range missiles from North Korea over parts of South Korea and possibly parts of Japan.
But Wang reiterated China's position, saying the THAAD system was a threat to China's national security because the system could be used to peer deep into mainland China.
What makes the situation more challenging for Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling DPK is that Washington wants to "deploy quickly" new intermediate-range missiles in Asia apparently to counter the rise of China in Northeast Asia. Earlier reports were that South Korea was among other candidates with Japan and Australia for the possible deployment of such mid-range missiles. Washington is no longer bound by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.
The Chinese official raised Beijing's concerns over Washington's possible move to deploy mid-range missiles in Asia.
But the key point is that Moon definitely wants to see substantial progress in the denuclearization talks. Given China's huge influence on North Korea in terms of security and the economy, South Korea is looking for China's support for that process.
"The process for the complete denuclearization of the peninsula and bringing a lasting peace is at a critical crossroads," Moon told Wang at the start of their meeting at the presidential office, according to Cheong Wa Dae press pool reports.
"I would like to ask for continuous support from China until the new era of a peaceful and denuclearized peninsula prevails."
What are South Korea's stakes? Can South Korea use China as "leverage" in persuading the U.S. to provide the level of concessions that North Korea wants?
The so-called "dual-track" approach provides greater flexibility to assess key pending issues ― however, the eventual cost of embracing the approach will be high. Washington officials said China was trying to crack the U.S.-South Korea partnership, criticizing Wang's apparent criticism of Washington.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun will visit Seoul this month for talks about North Korea with presidential National Security Office (NSO) officials.
"China's mounting influence and North Korea's rapidly expanding nuclear and missile capabilities are challenging South Korea," said Scott Snyder, a senior expert on Korean affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations in the U.S. "Reliance on and flux in the South Korea―United States relationship necessarily reinforce, yet at some points challenge, Seoul's options. In the end, it is its American ally that best suits South Korea's interest."