South Korea’s new president Moon Jae-in broke eight months of top-level silence between Seoul and Beijing today, placing a phone call to Xi Jinping that offered an emerging glimpse of his North Korea strategy. Reuters has the details:
“The resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue must be comprehensive and sequential, with pressure and sanctions used in parallel with negotiations,” Moon’s spokesman, Yoon Young-chan, quoted Moon as telling Xi.
“Sanctions against North Korea are also a means to bring the North to the negotiating table aimed at eliminating its nuclear weapons,” Yoon told a briefing, adding that Xi indicated his agreement.
Moon has taken a more conciliatory line with North Korea than his conservative predecessors and advocates engagement. He has said he would be prepared to go to Pyongyang “if the conditions are right”.
Moon’s message here about the need for negotiations is sure to please Beijing, since it largely echoes the Chinese position. A few days before Moon’s election, the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. penned an op-ed arguing that Beijing had already “done its utmost” to restrain Pyongyang, and that any further escalation of sanctions must be combined with direct talks. With Seoul now sharing the latter view, Beijing will feel even less pressure to seriously tighten the screws on North Korea, as Trump has been urging.
That said, it is not clear that Seoul and Beijing can immediately get on the same page and put bad blood behind them. As the FT’s account of the call suggests, the THAAD missile defense system could be a sticking point:
In the first conversation in eight months between the leaders of the two countries, Mr Xi reiterated China’s opposition to the controversial deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system in South Korea. Mr Moon acknowledged Chinese concerns about the system but said that Beijing should address the “restraints and restrictions” punitively imposed on South Korean companies operating in China.
Moon, of course, is a longtime critic of THAAD who believes the system has soured relations with Beijing. But even Moon knows that THAAD is not realistically going anywhere, at least not in the immediate term.
Regardless, talks will happen; Moon has reportedly tapped a special envoy to China to begin discussions, to include THAAD and the nuclear crisis, as soon as Saturday.