President Moon Jae-in greets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
North Korea could be trying to gain the upper hand in its relations with the US and China amid their intensifying rivalry, analysts say in reference to the ballistic missile tests that took place in the North on the same day that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with South Korean leaders in Seoul.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said Pyongyang launched two ballistic missiles into the East Sea on Wednesday afternoon, just days after testing a new long-range cruise missile. The South Korean and US intelligence agencies are conducting detailed analysis, it added, without providing details.
Wang is in Seoul for a two-day visit as the final leg of his weeklong Asia tour, which is seen as a move to counter Washington’s efforts to reassert its influence in the region.
It’s rare for North Korea to up the tension on the peninsula when China, its key ally and largest trade partner, is engaging in diplomatic activities.
Observers say Pyongyang’s missile launch was calculated to bolster its leverage over Beijing and Washington amid US-China competition, and to show that it is determined to develop strategic weapons in keeping with its five-year military buildup plan.
“North Korea believes its value got bigger amid intensifying US-China rivalry,” said Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy. “Pyongyang also has faith that its ties with China won’t falter as a result of the missile test.”
Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University, advanced a similar stance, saying Pyongyang is aware the missile launch could irk Beijing but knows it will not sever their ties.
“North Korea is playing by its own rules, with ‘self-reliance’ at the center, and pressuring both the US and China for its gains amid stalled nuclear talks with Washington,” said Park. “The launches are seen as part of a weapons development goal announced by North Korea early this year.”
Professor Hwang Jae-ho, a professor of international studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said with the Biden administration focusing on Afghanistan, Pyongyang is seeking to grab attention so that the peninsula issue becomes the US’ foreign policy priority.
He also added that the ballistic missile launches could offer a rare chance for US and China to work together.
“As China doesn’t want the regional situation to worsen before the Beijing Winter Olympics, Beijing might work with Washington to warn Pyongyang against (provocations),” said Hwang.
When the South Korean military announced the launches, Wang was meeting with Chung over lunch. The two discussed the latest missile launches and said they would not be helpful for inter-Korean relations, according to a Seoul official.
Wang had added that related countries should exercise restraint to ensure that military action does not lead to a “vicious cycle” of tensions on the peninsula.
Earlier in the morning, when Wang was asked to comment on the North’s cruise missile tests over the weekend, he expressed hope that all countries would act in a manner conducive to peace and stability on the peninsula.
“For example, not only the North, but also other countries, are engaging in military activities,” he said, apparently taking aim at the recent US-South Korea joint military exercises, which Wang had earlier condemned as not “constructive.”
“We still need everyone to be able to work together toward the resumption of dialogue,” said Wang.
On Wednesday the Chinese envoy also took aim at the US for seeking to expand the so-called Five Eyes intelligence alliance to include South Korea.
“I think it is completely a byproduct of the Cold War period. It is already outdated,” Wang told reporters.
Wang was hitting out at the US House of Representatives’ bill asking the US administration to consider broadening the Five Eyes program, which currently involves the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Under the proposal the US would invite its three key Asian allies to join -- South Korea, Japan and India -- as well as Germany.
When asked whether Beijing thinks Seoul is aligning itself with Washington amid heightened US-China rivalry, Wang said it is up to South Korea to answer the question and emphasized the strength of their bilateral ties, which will mark their 30th anniversary next year.
“China and South Korea are neighbors that cannot relocate themselves and partners that can’t be separated from each other,” he said. “We must go on friendly terms. We must also seek mutual benefit and win-win situation.”
During Wang’s session with Chung, the Chinese envoy asked for further cooperation to develop bilateral relations “more quickly, stably, fully and steadily” by further bolstering the “sense of community” and expanding common interests.
In turn, Chung, calling China a “core partner” for denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula, asked for China’s consistent support for the government’s Korean Peninsula peace process.
He also expressed hope that China can successfully host an “epidemic-free, safe and peaceful” Beijing Winter Olympics next year.