The Korea Herald


In Beijing, S. Korean top diplomat aims to jumpstart ties with China

Cho pledges to address repatriation of NK defectors, NK-Russia arms trade

By Ji Da-gyum

Published : May 13, 2024 - 15:10

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South Korean Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul responds to reporters' questions before heading for Beijing at Gimpo Airport in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap) South Korean Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul responds to reporters' questions before heading for Beijing at Gimpo Airport in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap)

South Korea's top diplomat said Monday that he would use his first trip to China as a first step toward fostering enhanced bilateral relations between Seoul and Beijing and as a pivotal opportunity to invigorate strategic communications.

Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul embarked on a two-day journey to Beijing, which included his first in-person meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on Monday afternoon, amid a period of strained bilateral ties.

The foreign ministerial meeting convened at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, marking the first of its kind since November 2017 during the Moon Jae-in government. The selection of the venue, notably where Wang met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in late April, underscored the symbolic importance of Monday's meeting.

"I will take a crucial first step in creating a new momentum for the development of Korea-China relations," Cho told reporters at Gimpo Airport before he departed.

Cho said his trip would "serve as a significant opportunity to enhance bilateral relations and vitalize strategic communications regarding Korean Peninsula affairs, as well as regional and global issues amid a grave geopolitical situation."

The foreign minister emphasized that he would "engage in a candid and in-depth conversation" with Wang, where he would "clearly articulate our position on matters of principle and concurrently concentrate on areas with substantial potential for cooperation to solidify the foundation for the development of bilateral relations."

Cho affirmed that he would "definitely raise" China's forceful repatriation of North Korean defectors to their homeland against their will and "strive to draw attention" to the matter, which he described as a "principal concern" for Seoul, during his meeting with Wang.

Cho explained that military cooperation between North Korea and Russia would be among the topics discussed in the context of regional and global issues.

Cho also highlighted that the North Korean nuclear issue would be "one of the important items for discussion" during the meeting with Wang, adding that it is a "matter in which China must play a crucial role."

"The geopolitical landscape in the surrounding region has indeed undergone significant changes over the past few years, making progress (in the North Korean nuclear issue) somewhat challenging," he said.

Cho explained he would "have an in-depth discussion on what cooperation is possible between South Korea and China, and explore how China can play a more proactive role in light of such circumstances."

When questioned about the possibility of China raising the issue of South Korea’s potential participation in AUKUS Pillar 2, Cho said that China was "believed to bring it up, but I will clearly articulate our position on matters of principle."

The AUKUS partners, comprising the United States, Britain, and Australia, are exploring the possibility of engaging with additional partners who can contribute distinctive strengths to Pillar 2, the next stage of Pillar 1 of the trilateral security partnership.

Seoul has not yet presented any official stance on joining AUKUS Pillar 2, a situation that could potentially unsettle China. However, South Korea discussed the possibility of participating in Pillar 2 during talks with Australia on May 1, as disclosed by Defense Minister Shin Won-sik following the two-plus-two meeting in Melbourne.

Other topics to be addressed would include strategies to facilitate favorable conditions for business operations and investment by South Korean companies in China, as well as discussions on human-to-human and cultural exchanges, including China's restrictions on Korean cultural content.

Before the ministerial meeting, Cho met with Korean businesspeople in China on Monday and pledged "active economic diplomacy," citing the shift in economic ties between South Korea and China as a significant challenge.

According to Cho, the high mutual dependence between the two countries has driven their growth, but it has also exposed them to risks.

"As the Chinese economy has transitioned to a technology-intensive industrial structure, the economic relationship between the two countries is shifting from complementary partnership to competition," he emphasized. "I believe these factors present serious challenges for us."

The in-person meeting between the foreign ministers of China and South Korea represented the first of its kind since November 2023 when a bilateral meeting was held on the sidelines of the trilateral foreign ministerial meeting with Japan in Busan.

Cho's journey to Beijing occurred at a critical juncture before the highly anticipated summit involving South Korea, Japan, and China, which has been put on hold since 2019. The three countries have been in the final stages of discussions to convene their leaders' summit on May 26 and 27 in Seoul.

Cho's trip also underscores the South Korean Foreign Ministry's previously pronounced commitment to maintaining a steady stream of high-level exchanges, leveraging the momentum generated by the recent visit to South Korea by Hao Peng, the party secretary of Liaoning province in China, in late April.