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A fruitless summit

Korea’s history shows that our hopes for friendship with neighboring countries have failed to protect us.
July 11,2017
The most important event on President Moon Jae-in’s Group of 20 schedule was likely his one-on-one meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. China is the country that can actually stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile program, and the meeting was an opportunity to listen to the intentions of China’s leader. Stopping China’s economic retaliation against Korea over the controversial Thaad missile shield, which the U.S. military has installed on Korean soil and China believes is a threat to its security, is also only possible through Xi.

Moon appeared to have strong determination before his first meeting with Xi. Ahead of the summit, he met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and expressed his anticipation for the meeting. “China has the strongest influence over North Korea,” Moon said. “I expect Beijing to contribute a little more, and I will have a frank and candid discussion with Xi about this.”

As in most summits, it is hard for the public to accurately know what was really discussed during the meeting, but from what we can glean from the announcements made by both sides, Moon’s plan for a candid talk does not appear to have worked on Xi. The Chinese leader did not promise to pressure North Korea further. He said China is making its best efforts and criticized the idea that China must play a more active role to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. A South Korean official said Xi actually mentioned the blood alliance between China and North Korea.

How must have Moon received the perception of the Chinese leader, who talked about the “blood alliance” between China and North Korea while Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile capabilities, now strong enough to threaten the U.S. mainland, are rapidly escalating tensions in Northeast Asia? China’s reluctance to pressure North Korea was also revealed during Xi’s meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, where he said China opposes unilateral, independent sanctions on Pyongyang.

So how cooperative has China been in strengthening international sanctions through the United Nations? Whenever North Korea conducts a nuclear test and fires a missile, China has defended the North in the UN. Since the North’s first nuclear test in October 2006, have China’s efforts had any effect in stopping Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile program?

The discussion between Moon and Xi about Thaad was also disappointing. Not only conglomerates, which can withstand enormous losses, are the targets of China’s retaliation. Many small companies and workers in the retail and tourism industries are losing their jobs day by day. “Economic, cultural and people-to-people exchange between the two countries has shrunk,” Moon told Xi. Although it was an indirect expression, China must have read the desperation in Moon’s remarks.

But Xi did not express any intention of stopping the retaliation. Instead, he said, “China hopes Korea will respect China’s proper concerns and remove the obstacle in improving our bilateral relations,” making a direct demand for the withdrawal of Thaad.

While China is doing little to stop North Korea’s missile development, Xi is demanding South Korea remove the Thaad missile shield. At that moment, Xi was probably asking Moon to choose between China and the United States.

Moon should have strongly challenged Xi. He should have asked Xi if China was South Korea’s good friend or not, now that it has been 25 years since Seoul and Beijing ended their hostility and normalized diplomatic relations. Moon should have asked Xi if China could really say it was a protector of free trade when it imposes economic retaliations against a neighbor over something like Thaad.

Korea’s history shows that our hopes for friendship with neighboring countries have failed to protect us. We are facing the same situation again. It’s time to give up the fantasy and face reality.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 10, Page 28

*The author is the international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Lee Sang-ryeul