Given recent diplomatic advancements between the Republic of Korea and Japan, as well as the President of the Republic of Korea’s visit to the United States, this article investigates issues that may indicate a chill in relations with China. On April 19, 2023, President Yoon Suk-yeol gave an interview to Reuters. Yoon frequently spoke cautiously about Sino-US rivalry because China is South Korea’s main commercial partner. However, regarding the tension in the Taiwan Strait, he stated that “these tensions occurred because of the attempts to change the status quo by force, and we together with the international community absolutely oppose such a change… The Taiwan issue is not simply an issue between China and Taiwan but, like the issue of North Korea, it is a global issue.”
In response, on April 20, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said “the Taiwan question is purely an internal affair at the core of China’s interests. Its resolution is a matter for the Chinese, who do not need to be told what should or should not be done.” Commenting on the interview with the President of the Republic of Korea, Wang stressed that there is only one China, and Taiwan is an integral part of it. The so-called “activists” who support the independence of the island and work with the help and patronage of outside forces are to blame for the unrest in the Taiwan Strait. He stressed that Taiwan’s independence and the concepts of peace and stability are incompatible as “water and fire” because, unlike North Korea, Taiwan is not a sovereign state. Wenbin called on Seoul to respect the one-China principle and treat the situation around Taiwan with caution.
Seoul reacted immediately. The South Korean Foreign Ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador to South Korea, Xing Haiming, on April 20. First Deputy Minister Chang Ho-jin expressed his extreme disapproval of the remarks and referred to them as impolite and a breach of diplomatic decorum. Earlier in the day, the ROK Foreign Ministry issued a statement strongly condemning Wang’s comments. “In response to our leader’s mention of the universal principle that we oppose the change of the status quo by force, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson made an unspeakable statement… The spokesperson’s remarks must be pointed out as a serious diplomatic discourtesy that calls into question China’s national integrity.”
On April 21, the secretary general of the ruling People Force, Chul-gyu Lee not only criticized China for its “very rude” actions, calling Yoon’s comments consistent with common sense and universal values, but went further. “The past Moon administration’s submissive foreign policy toward China must have led its government to believe South Korea is merely a small peak inside the larger mountain of China… A great power does not come from its geological size. China will only truly be recognized as a great power if it shows by example and follows the universal values of humanity.”
In response, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang spoke out: “Recently there has been absurd rhetoric accusing China of unilaterally changing the status quo across the Taiwan Strait through force or coercion, and of disrupting peace and stability in the region… Those who play with fire on Taiwan will eventually get themselves burned.”
On April 24, the Chinese Embassy in Seoul issued a statement reminding South Korea that it had recognized the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legitimate government of China.
The embassy made clear that these were solemn pledges made by South Korea when it established diplomatic ties between the two nations in 1992, and that they served as the political cornerstone for the growth of bilateral relations.
It should be noted here that all of this could have been avoided. The entire region understands that the greatest way to convince China to speak out on Taiwan is to speak out outside of streamlined diplomatic language, and Yoon went one step further by equating the Taiwanese and North Korean situations.
Also, this type of altercation happened against the backdrop of a number of other significant occurrences. First and foremost, information about the development of commercial ties between China and North Korea has become available. Rumor has it that North Korea is using the industrial complex in Kaesong, which South Korea still considers its own, to attract Chinese investment. Allegedly, in an attempt to attract Chinese investment and business opportunities, the North has sent photos of the facilities and samples of products manufactured in Kaesong to Chinese businessmen from border areas with North Korea. Additionally, images and videos released by Pyongyang’s official media revealed that the North has partially resumed operation of the facilities and is utilizing equipment like buses left behind by South Korean businesses.
Secondly, hopes that a change in the situation with the coronavirus would open the Chinese economy for South Korea did not materialize, as indicated by a recent report of the Bank of Korea. Third, anti-Chinese prejudice in society persists. One example is the allegation that a group of gangsters located in China supplied drugs to minors and engaged in other types of fraud.
It is also essential to consider popular opinion, which prioritizes collaboration with the United States. According to the findings of a poll done by the Federation of Korean Industrialists on April 4-5, 89% of South Koreans regard the United States as their top priority partner for collaboration. China is in second place by a wide margin (35.2%).
Given the circumstances, and despite Yoon not specifically condemning China, the Beijing leadership regarded the Washington declaration and other US alliance obligations as steps directed not just at North Korea but also at China. As a result, they were strongly criticized. Especially since, in a joint statement, Joe Biden and Yoon Suk-yeol advocated the preservation of peace in the Taiwan Strait, speaking out against “unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the Indo-Pacific region” and “illegal claims to water areas,” noting that “coercive actions” were unacceptable. This is a very big dig at China.
Therefore, the Chinese Foreign Ministry strongly protested the reference to the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Beijing said that Washington and Seoul should clearly recognize the reality of the Taiwan issue, respect the principle of “one China” and be careful in their words and actions on the issue of Taiwan, which is exclusively an internal PRC affair, and “not follow the wrong and dangerous path.” Regarding “the Washington Declaration,” it was stated that its content, aimed at increasing the expanded deterrence of the DPRK, on the contrary, will lead to increased tensions in the region, because the problem of the Korean Peninsula is complex and delicate. It must be solved through dialogue and negotiation, and the method chosen by the US is full of Cold War-era thinking, foments bloc confrontation, destroys the nuclear nonproliferation system, harms other countries’ strategic interests, and destroys regional peace and stability, all of which run counter to the goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
In this context, Liu Jinsong, Director-General of the Department of Asian Affairs of the Foreign Ministry, met with Kang Sang-wook, a deputy chief at the South Korean Embassy, expressed “strong dissatisfaction” with the statement, and urged Seoul to strictly adhere to the one-China principle, and Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning called on the ROK and the United States to clearly understand the reality of the Taiwan issue and respect the one-China policy, be careful in words and actions, without turning down the wrong and dangerous path. Mao Ning stressed that the Taiwan issue is exclusively an internal matter, and its solution is a matter for the Chinese people without the interference of external forces. In addition, Mao Ning said that China opposes Washington’s use of problems on the Korean Peninsula “to put its own geopolitical interests before the security of the whole region,” and stressed that “the US undermines the nuclear non-proliferation system and hurts the strategic interest of other countries. It has also increased tensions on the peninsula and jeopardized regional peace and stability.”
Yoon Suk-yeol was also reprimanded for his speech to the United States Congress, in which he mentioned the Korean War as an example of American aid to the ROK and their actions during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir as examples of American contribution. “The 1st US Marine Division miraculously broke through a wave of 120,000 Chinese troops.” From this passage one can conclude that the United States won, but the problem is that the Americans were only able to retreat with dignity, avoiding complete defeat. Approximately 1/8 of all soldiers killed during the Korean War died in this battle: 4,500 out of nearly 37,000. Even from the point of view of formal criteria, the victory remains with the North, which remained reigning over the battlefield. That is why Mao Ning called the battle a victory for the Chinese and warned that those who intimidated the weak would have “cracked heads and shed blood.”
Ruling People Power Party (PPP) leader Kim Gi-hyeon criticized Mao’s remarks: “(China) is making unsettling comments and blatantly stirring up our public’s emotions and I cannot but express deep regret over China’s undue rudeness,” and added that “while the two countries’ future should not be held back due to “painful” history, it is unacceptable for China to “distort history” and “defame the country’s stature.”
The conservative media in the ROK also responded sharply. “This leads us to judge that China had been trying to bully South Korea to restrain it from moving closer to the United States ahead of Yoon’s state visit to the US… It is better for Beijing to reflect on itself. Its behavior has been undermining efforts toward global peace and common prosperity on the basis of the rules-based international order. China, along with Russia, has been taking the lead in neutralizing international efforts toward the denuclearization of North Korea. For instance, the two nations have been safeguarding North Korea by blocking the United Nations’ bid to impose further sanctions against the North’s nuclear and missile provocations.”
On May 2, 2023, Yoon Suk-yeol stated that South Korea had no choice but to rely on the United States’ extended deterrence because Beijing did not apply UN sanctions to North Korea at all. When a reporter asked Yoon how he assessed the extent of China’s dissatisfaction with his agreement with the United States, Yoon said, “If they want to take issue with us and criticize us for adopting the Washington Declaration and upgrading our security cooperation to one that is nuclear-based, they should reduce the nuclear threat or at least abide by international law and stick to UN Security Council sanctions against the nuclear threat.” “If they don’t take part at all in the sanctions against violations of UN Security Council resolutions, what do they want us to do? We’re left with no choice,” Yoon said.
Thus, the war of words has come to an important limit, beyond which action, not words, may follow. The rumor that the Chinese Customs Administration ordered tightened inspections of cargoes coming from Korea has already been circulating in the South Korea’s media. Allegedly, Korean businessmen in China shared this rumor on social media, although the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy said that no delays in customs clearance of Korean exports to China had been noticed. Another rumor was that the Chinese municipal government had asked local electronics firms to explain why they were using semiconductors made in foreign countries. Seoul is worried that things are heading towards a wave of informal sanctions, similar to those imposed in response to the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system.
Yun Sun, a Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the East Asia Program and Director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, also believes that Yoon’s visit to the United States did not bring much good news for relations between Seoul and Beijing, and Chinese policymakers interpret it as a clear sign that South Korea is growing closer to Washington. “We have faced Chinese economic sanctions against South Korea before. I wouldn’t rule it out at this point.”
According to Ramon Pacheco Pardo, international relations professor at King’s College London, “South Korea being able to consult with the US on its nuclear policy towards Northeast Asia and the more regular deployment of strategic assets indirectly support American efforts to contain China.” However, Pacheco Pardo thinks the situation is unlikely to escalate into a major diplomatic scandal, as a similar passage about Taiwan has previously been included in joint statements by Moon Jae-in and Biden – the statement reflects the position that the Yoon government has previously clarified, and nothing groundbreaking is said.
What does the author have to say about this? Previously, the relationship between the two countries has involved a misunderstanding of the following kind: Seoul believes that if actions have not crossed the red line, they are not a reason for deteriorating relations. But Beijing, like Moscow, is interested in the direction of Seoul’s movement “from China to the United States,” rather than speed. In this context, the statements and the declaration Yoon signed were interpreted by China as a significant step in the indicated direction. There was a strong reaction, with a war of words in response. But openly accusing Beijing and Moscow of pandering to the DPRK is an important change in rhetoric, given that Seoul will have to finally choose sides in the medium term.