The summit Wednesday between North Korea and Russia, heightening concerns over potential arms deals involving the war in Ukraine, has left room for South Korea to actively engage with China, appealing to its reluctance to back the grinding conflict that is facing growing international pressure, according to experts on Thursday.
China, a country that unlike the North has largely distanced itself from endorsing Russia’s war, has so far said little of the meeting that came for the first time in four years. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has called the get-together a “matter between the two,” referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The two autocrats, facing similar isolation, are seen pursuing a quid pro quo that allows Moscow to restock its munitions amid shortages to support its war while Pyongyang in return would obtain technologies to improve its nuclear weapons and build satellites.
Whatever Beijing’s intentions are, said Kang Jun-young, a professor of Chinese studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, “China doesn’t want to be grouped together with Moscow and Pyongyang to face the blame or the pressure over the war in Ukraine. It knows well that’s toxic.”
The world’s second-largest economy does not want to weaken its initiative to cement a political standing to match its economic might. It also cannot afford direct confrontation with the US on an issue not worth getting called out amid their trade row, according to Kang.
“So that’s where Seoul should come in to talk to improve relations,” Kang said of lukewarm Seoul-Beijing ties. South Korea’s ever-closer ties with the US and Japan, forged at their unprecedented summit in August, angered China, as the three condemned its “aggression.”
A three-way summit that would bring together the leaders of South Korea, China and Japan, potentially within this year, could be a “really good start to let the Chinese know South Korea is serious about boosting cooperation,” Kang said of talks that Seoul is looking to reopen as host, following a four-year hiatus prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Officials in Seoul have said in private that preparations are underway without disruption, raising optimism for the dialogue, which usually discusses expanding economic cooperation. What topics the three will cover is still being debated, according to those officials.
Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, suggested South Korea find more opportunities to engage China to prevent it from bolstering a coalition with North Korea and Russia, a move Park says could undermine efforts for the North’s disarmament.
Kang, the Chinese studies professor, added that a potential Seoul-Beijing summit could “markedly improve relations,” citing remarks this week by Cho Tae-yong, the South Korean national security adviser. Cho has said such a meeting would “likely follow the trilateral dialogue” without elaborating on when.
But Lim Eul-chul, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, was less optimistic over what the leader-level meeting could do, referring to lingering differences South Korea and China have yet to work out -- especially concerning Taiwan. Washington supports the self-ruled democratic island while Beijing maintains it is Chinese territory and the island could be reclaimed by force if necessary.
The dispute is a global one, and South Korea would resist changing the status quo by force, President Yoon Suk Yeol said earlier this year. China immediately fired back at the Korean leader with a warning not to interfere in internal affairs.