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A frosty state visit

Dec 16,2017
“The Chinese and Koreans are comrades that endured and overcame hardship in modern history … I hope this visit to China will mark the beginning of higher-level bilateral relationship based on such [historical] comradely trust,” President Moon Jae-in said in an address to students at Peking University. South Korea and China won’t tolerate North Korea’s nuclear weapons under any circumstances and share a “resolute” position that powerful sanctions and pressure are necessary to stop North Korean provocations, he said.

But summit talks with his counterpart, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and the paucity of achievements from his state visit to China raises questions whether Beijing feels the same about Seoul and South Koreans. It’s certainly not clear if the two governments are on the same footing on North Korean nuclear provocations. Under the so-called four principles the two states agreed to, there cannot be another war in the Korean Peninsula, the Korean Peninsula must be denuclearized, the North Korean nuclear issue must be solved through peaceful means, and an improved inter-Korean relationship will help solve issues around the Korean Peninsula. The first three derive from the same Beijing rhetoric we have heard since the nuclear crisis began with Pyongyang’s bolting from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1993. If not for the additional mention of the need for improved inter-Korean ties, the agenda is Beijing’s, not Seoul’s.

China announced that the four principles were “emphasized” by Xi. If that is true, Moon and his officials merely jotted down and agreed with what Xi said. The Blue House could be upset by such an accusation, but it won’t be able to clearly answer when asked what new gains Seoul achieved from the latest summit.

At least Moon, who leads a country that China’s state-run newspaper, the Global Times, named as the first target of North Korean nuclear weapon, should have asked Beijing for a more proactive role in denuclearizing North Korea. He did not even mention the need for cutting oil supplies to North Korea. Seoul instead was lectured by Xi to “appropriately” address the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) anti-missile system that Beijing remains vehemently opposed to.

From the talks, it became pretty obvious that Beijing has no intention of levying separate sanctions outside a UN Security Council resolution or putting the Thaad issue to rest. Seoul merely has narrowed its maneuvering room by vowing the unaccountability of a war without any specific promise from Beijing on working on denuclearization at a time North Korea declared it has mastered nuclear weapon capabilities. It only weakened the bilateral alliance with Washington, which is believed to have internally set a deadline to make a military move on North Korea if it does not yield on its nuclear program within the next three months.

It is not surprising that Xi has not positively answered Moon’s invitation to the opening ceremony for the upcoming Pyeongchang Olympics as the host country for the next Winter Olympics. His welcome was anything but warm to his South Korean guests. We must fold our hopes on Beijing. Now that we have learned Beijing’s true thoughts, we must strengthen the alliance with the United States, as that is the only way we can address North Korean threat. If Moon comes home with such a realization, the visit may not have been a total write-off.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 16, Page 30