|South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, right, speaks with U.S. President Joe Biden, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida ahead of their three-way talks in Hiroshima, Japan, May 21. Joint Press Corps|
By Nam Hyun-woo
China is sending diplomatic signals that relations between Seoul and Beijing are now facing setbacks, claiming that South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol's policy of closer alignments with the United States and Japan is part of the problem.
During the past several months, Yoon has engaged in a flurry of diplomatic events and focused on recalibrating the international community's perception of South Korea's stance on international issues ― mostly aligning Seoul's stance on Indo-Pacific matters with that of Washington, despite China's angry responses.
And Beijing now appears to be hitting back by adopting a tougher stance, with its foreign ministry saying the two countries' relations face "difficulties and challenges" attributable to Seoul.
"I want to stress that the current difficulties and challenges in the China-South relations are not caused by China," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said during a press conference on May 31.
"The South Korean side should have an in-depth understanding of the crux of the problem, take it seriously and work with China to make positive effort for the sound and steady growth of China-South Korea relations."
The comments came after Director-General of the Department of Asian Affairs at the Chinese Foreign Ministry Liu Jinsong visited Seoul last week and sat down with his counterparts here.
The Hankyoreh daily reported that Liu delivered China's position on Seoul's recent diplomatic developments, that there will be no bilateral cooperation and no visits by high-profile Chinese figures if South Korea continues its policy of exclusively aligning with the U.S. and Japan, or if Seoul intervenes in China's key interests, namely tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson did not confirm whether those positions were delivered during the director-level meeting, but added, "China has seriously and comprehensively made clear its solemn position on its core interest to the South Korean side."
|Choi Yong-jun, director-general of the Northeast Asian Affairs Bureau of South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, center in right row, talks to Liu Jinsong, director-general of the Department of Asian Affairs of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, second from left in left row, during their meeting at Seoul's foreign ministry in Gwanghwamun, Seoul, May 22. Captured from China's Foreign Ministry website|
China is blaming South Korea because of Yoon's recent remarks on matters that Beijing finds very sensitive.
In an interview with Reuters on April 19, Yoon said that tension is rising across Taiwan Strait because of "attempts to change the status quo by force" and the matter is a "global issue" comparable to North Korea.
Since then, despite China's thorny responses, Yoon has been reiterating that South Korea is against any attempt to change the status quo by force and coercive diplomacy, during his appearance at global events.
While doing so, the president has set a stronger trilateral security cooperation between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo as a new principle of his diplomacy.
Although Seoul says the stepped up cooperation is aimed at containing North Korea's increasing nuclear and missile threats, China appears to be suspicious due to concerns that the trilateral cooperation could be Washington's vehicle for containing Beijing's growing influence.
In a White House statement released after a summit between U.S. President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Hiroshima last month, the leaders noted, "the coercive behavior by the People's Republic of China that runs counter to international law" as a regional challenge that the two countries should address.
|This photo released Thursday by Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency shows the Chollima-1 rocket, carrying a spy satellite, taking off from an undisclosed location in North Korea the previous day. Yonhap|
No more 'freeze-for-freeze'
Against this backdrop, China appears to be loosening its reins on North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons, which is a hefty burden on Seoul's efforts to deter Pyongyang's nuclear and missile threats.
In recent months, Chinese government officials have been refraining from using the term "freeze-for-freeze," referring to a scheme in which South Korea and the U.S. stop joint military exercises in exchange for freezing Pyongyang's nuclear and missile provocations.
For years, Beijing had promoted the freeze-for-freeze and "dual-track approach," which refers to a simultaneous effort for denuclearization and a peace treaty, as the two main pillars of its own resolution for North Korea's nuclear threats. But any mention of the freeze-for-freeze term became difficult to find in Beijing's recent diplomatic statements, while dual-track approach remains as a core principle.
When asked about North Korea's unsuccessful launch of a rocket carrying what it claims was a military spy satellite on May 31, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said the only way to prevent the situation from worsening is to "resume meaningful dialogue under the dual-track approach," without mentioning the freeze-for-freeze policy.
"The only way to prevent the situation from worsening is that all sides should face up to the crux of the absence of a peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula, resume meaningful dialogue under the 'dual track' approach and address each other's reasonable concerns in a balanced way," Mao said.
|Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping toast during their dinner at The Palace of the Facets is a building in the Moscow Kremlin, Russia, March 21. AP-Yonhap|
In a joint statement after a summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in March, the leaders also mentioned the dual-track approach only, without the freeze-for-freeze policy, saying they did not believe in the feasibility of "sanctions and pressure" in achieving peace on the Korean Peninsula.
"It seems that China is now making remarks that the North would find favorable," said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University's Department of North Korea Studies. "With Seoul's stronger coupling with Washington and Tokyo raising the importance of North Korea to China as a counterweight, there would be no reason for Beijing to mention the freeze-for-freeze policy, which has almost no feasibility in the current situation."
Lee Dong-gyu, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, also said the freeze-for-freeze policy has gone unrealistic in the current situation, and it may backfire for China.
"The current situation of both Russia and North Korea not budging on China's non-proliferation calls is prompting Beijing to stay away from the freeze-for-freeze policy," Lee said. "China wanted to showcase to the world that it is doing its denuclearization role, but the North's continued pursuit of nuclear programs is rather raising doubts on freeze-for-freeze policy and triggering calls for China to fulfill its responsibility for that."
Choo Jae-woo, a professor at Kyung Hee University, wrote in his contribution to Korea Development Institute's monthly review on the North Korean economy that: "By excluding freeze-for-freeze, China and Russia have showcased that they are recognizing the North's constant missile test and nuclear threats as North Korea's due self-defense right."
"That means they will accept North Korea's missile tests as long as South Korea and the U.S. stage joint military exercise," Choo wrote.