Candid dialogue key to improving China-South Korea relations

South Korean President Moon Jae In (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) pose for a photo prior to their talks at a hotel in Berlin, Germany, July 6, 2017. The two leaders are in Germany for the upcoming G-20 summit, which will be held in Hamburg from July 7-8. Photo: EPA/YONHAP

While the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system on the Korean peninsula has driven China-South Korea relations to a freezing point over the past one year, a candid dialogue between the two nations will be key to improving the bilateral relations, said Kwak Young-kil, president of Seoul based Aju News Corporation.

“The China-South Korea relationship is somewhat like one between husband and wife, which means quarrel, sometimes a big one, is unavoidable since they live so close to each other. But it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to break up, instead, they have to figure out a way to resolve the conflicts,” said Kwak in a recent interview with the

South Korea and the US announced to deploy THAAD in Seongju county in North Gyeongsang province in July last year amid escalating tensions with North Korea. Following that, on April 26, part of the THAAD system including two mobile launchers and a radar were transported into a golf course, which used to be owned by Lotte, located in the village of Soseong-ri in the county.

While South Korean authorities have reiterated that the THAAD system will be used for protecting the country from North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat, local residents have strongly opposed the deployment of THAAD, with many questioning the real effect of THAAD in protecting South Korea and the true purpose of deploying a US-made missile defense system in their own country.

The deployment of THAAD in South Korea has also been strongly opposed by China which considers the system, in particular the radar system, a threat to its own national security, as China worries the US will use it to monitor China.

“Although South Korean and the US authorities have explained to China that the radar system will not be used to monitor China, the Chinese government doesn’t believe what the US said, and there has been so far no dialogue on this issue between the two countries,” said Chung Sang-ki, former head of South Korea's Foreign Ministry Asian Affairs Department and former representative of the Korean Mission in Taipei.

The deadlock between South Korea and China triggered by THAAD has also affected the two countries’ economies, as both are important trade partners to each other.

According to statistics from the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) in June, overseas tourists to South Korea had been decreasing for four consecutive months, among which visitors from China had decreased by 66.4% on year. It also showed that the number of Chinese visitors to South Korea reached 8 million in 2016, while predicting that there would be only about 4 million in 2017.

Also, disputes over the THAAD issue caused trillions of won in losses for South Korean companies in the first half of this year, according to South Korea media. Lotte Group alone which signed a land swap deal with the South Korean Defense Ministry in February, had closed 87 of its 99 stores in China as of April 3, and it is estimated that the loss of Lotte’s Chinese business is up to 200 billion won (around 1.2 billion Chinese yuan).

China, on the other hand, whose major source of overseas tourists is also South Korea, has also seen a drastic decline in South Korean tourists in one of its most famous tourism sites Zhangjiajie of 70% amid the THAAD dispute. South Korean tourists visiting Zhangjiajie accounted for up to 70% of all the overseas tourists in 2016, according to Chinese media.

However, Kwak believes such tensions and side effect triggered by the THAAD issue on China and South Korea are “just like a quarrel between a couple” which will not last long as the cause of the THAAD issue is neither South Korea nor China.

“People from business, cultural and sports sectors love peace, and communications in these areas are cross-border. While conflicts in political field should not damage normal activities in other areas, people working in these fields should instead play a more active role, such as enhancing mutual exchanges and organizing economic and cultural forums, which will in turn help ease the political tension between the two countries,” said Kwak.

Another doable approach to break the deadlock, he said, is to set an organization in northeastern Asia area, which specializes in resolving conflicts peacefully and provides a platform for each party to share dialogue.

“Even when a dispute occurs, the involved countries should argue face-to-face instead of talking to itself or through the media,” he said. “These are measures that countries in conflict can take in order to seek a compromising point when they all get tired of fighting.”

The decision to deploy THAAD in South Korea was made under former South Korean President Park Geun-hye last year and tensions between China and South Korea also peaked during her administration.

While it seemed the tensions would ease once Moon Jae-in was elected as the new president who intended to improve South Korea’s relations with China and North Korea, especially after Moon announced a suspension of the THAAD deployment pending an environmental impact assessment in June, worries about the bilateral relationship would be tightened were triggered again after President Moon ordered discussions to be held with the US on deploying the additional THAAD anti-missile defense units following North Korea’s test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile last week.

But many still believe Moon’s administration will be able to lead the China-South Korea relations to a better direction and ease the Korean peninsula tensions, mostly considering Moon’s own personality.

“Moon was born during the Korean War period, and he knows very well about the side effects of war on both countries. There is no better qualified person than him to shoulder the mission to promote the peaceful development of the Korean peninsula,” said Kwak.

“He is very different compared with his predecessors, no matter in relation to the China issue or North Korea issue,” echoed Chung.

On July 6, Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Moon held a talk during a meeting ahead of a G20 summit in Germany, in which both leaders showed their intention to return bilateral ties to the track of healthy development, without mentioning THAAD.

"For a period of time, China-South Korea relationship has been facing difficulties, and we do not want to see that," Xi said during the meeting. In response, Moon said "I fully understand China's concerns and I intend to have in-depth communication with the Chinese side."

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