Chinese President Xi Jinping gestures towards South Korean President Moon Jae-In during a signing ceremony in Beijing. Photo: Reuters / Nicolas Asfouri
Chinese President Xi Jinping gestures towards South Korean President Moon Jae-In during a signing ceremony in Beijing. Photo: Pool/Agencies

Even before it took place, there were low expectations for South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s state visit to China, highlighted by a summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. As it turns out, things have gone worse than expected.

China and South Korea, adversaries in the 1950-53 Korean War, are this year celebrating 25 years of diplomatic relations. In that quarter century, China has risen to become Korea’s top investment and export destination.

This requires Seoul diplomats to walk a tricky tightrope between economic partner China and strategic ally the United States – complicated by the fact that Seoul shares Beijing’s animosity toward Tokyo over historical issues.

In an obvious red light, the two countries had, prior to Moon’s visit this week agreed not to release a joint statement or hold a press conference after their leaders’ summit.

Beijing continue to simmer over the deployment of the US THAAD (Theater High-Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile battery in South Korea. Prior to the trip, even South Korea’s left-leaning Hankyoreh editorialized: “China displays misguided focus on THAAD issue in advance of Moon-Xi summit.”

So, things looked challenging from the outset as there was much to discuss, but hopes were low. Even so, South Korean officials must be dismayed by how badly things have deteriorated.

The visit has been marred by what Korean media claim is disrespect toward their president, and further marred by an apparent assault on journalists by Chinese security guards.

Moon was greeted by a vice-ministerial level foreign ministry official when he landed in Beijing on Wednesday, and was not invited to a customary lunch with the Chinese premier. Korean media portrayed both as snubs.

In fact, senior Chinese officials were attending a commemoration of the Nanjing Massacre on the day Moon arrived, raising questions about the trip’s timing.

Things deteriorated yesterday, when Korean photojournalists following the presidential entourage were assaulted by Chinese security guards as they tried to follow the president into a trade show.

The ruck flooded Korea’s internet immediately, and received front-page coverage in domestic media today.

While anyone who has attended a Korean press conference will know that jostling crowds of photographers are frequently distracting, what happened in Beijing looked extreme. An assault by a mass of fist-wielding Chinese security guards was captured on camera.

Presidential officials and security detail members were reportedly engulfed in the push-and-shove on the sidelines, and one photographer ended up in hospital.

The security guards had, ironically, been hired by a Korean trade promotion body, KOTRA, but were reportedly operating under the oversight of Chinese police.

Yesterday evening, the results of the Moon-Xi summit appeared underwhelming, with the two agreeing to four principles when handling North Korea: No tolerance for war on the peninsula; a firm resolve to denuclearization; resolution to be achieved through negotiations; and a recognition that improved inter-Korean ties will further efforts toward a peaceful outcome.

Regarding THAAD, Xi reiterated China’s position and said he hopes South Korea, “will continue to respect its stance and adequately address the issue,” Korea’s foreign ministry said.

A presidential official, attempting to put a positive spin on the summit, told Yonhap newswire that Xi spoke less about THAAD on Thursday than during his two previous meetings with Moon

Korean media has been scathing. Commenting on the low-ranked official welcome, the lack of a prime ministerial lunch, “rude” Chinese media coverage and the violence, the Joongang Ilbo, South Korea’s number two  newspaper, editorialized: “We must not let this incident go … the government must be stern with this case regardless of the president’s agenda.”

The opposition has waded in, calling the visit a “fiasco.” “How can a government that allows journalists to be assaulted protect its citizens?”  People’s Party leader Ahn Cheol-soo asked, according to Yonhap. “It has to squarely face the fact that citizens’ pride has been bruised by the case.”

The original diplomatic row between Beijing and Seoul was sparked by Seoul’s deployment of a US THAAD battery. Seoul says that the system exclusively defends against North Korean threats, but Beijing insists that its radar allows Washington to snoop on Chinese systems.

Muddying the waters for Moon, the deployment took place under disgraced former conservative President Park Geun-hye, who was ejected from office in March. This paved the way for the liberal Moon’s May electoral victory.

Park initially cozied up to Xi. She learnt Mandarin and was the only major democratic leader to attend Beijing’s World War II victory parade in 2015. But she abruptly changed track when, amid Beijing’s lukewarm actions toward Pyongyang and the latter’s subsequent advances in strategic arms, she agreed to deploy THAAD in July 2016.

This was just four months before the mass protests that eventually led to her impeachment.

Beijing retaliated economically, imposing travel bans on Chinese charter tours to Korea – a significant segment of their tourism market – and disadvantaged Korean companies in China. The most notable was the boycotting of the Lotte Group, which donated a golf course for the THAAD battery system.

In October, Seoul and Beijing appeared to overcome their difficulties after Seoul offered to deploy no further THAAD batteries, to refrain from joining the US missile defense shield, and stating that it will not join any formal Korea-Japan-US security alliance in the region.

Still, Beijing appears only slightly mollified, with officials and media continuing to criticize THAAD.

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