SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — With a single meeting Thursday, the leaders of China and South Korea simultaneously snubbed North Korea, bolstered their already booming trade relationship and gave the U.S. and Japan a look at Beijing’s growing influence south of the Korean Demilitarized Zone.
There were smiles, cheering schoolchildren and red carpets as Chinese President Xi Jinping began a two-day visit to Seoul.
North Korea, meanwhile, welcomed the leader of its only major ally and crucial source of fuel and food with a flurry of recent rocket and missile tests, the latest on Wednesday. The launches, as well as a vow Thursday by the North’s military to conduct more tests, are seen in part as Pyongyang demonstrating its anger at being jilted for its archrival.
After their talks Thursday, South Korean President Park Geun-hye told reporters that she and Xi agreed on the definite need to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons and would resolutely oppose any more nuclear tests.
North Korea is thought to have a handful of crude nuclear weapons and has conducted three atomic tests since 2006, the most recent last year. Xi also called for negotiations to end the North’s nuclear program and the uncertainty that lingers on the Korean Peninsula.
Xi’s choice to meet with Park over North Korean leader Kim Jong Un upends the practice since Beijing and Seoul forged diplomatic ties in 1992 of Chinese presidents choosing to make Pyongyang their first official destination on the Korean Peninsula.
Beijing, entangled in hostile territorial disputes across Asia, may see an opportunity to boost its influence with the rare neighbor that feels generally positive about China, while also further driving a wedge between U.S. allies Seoul and Tokyo. South Korea and China share a distaste of Japan’s more assertive military ambitions and what critics see as recent attempts by Tokyo to obscure its bloody past.
Money has long been the focus of the relationship between China, the world’s second-largest economy, and South Korea, the fourth-biggest economy in Asia.
The countries are in talks on a bilateral free trade agreement. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, and Seoul says two-way trade topped $220 billion last year. That’s larger than the combined value of South Korea’s trade with the United States and Japan.
China and South Korea on Thursday agreed to measures that will expand the use of China’s tightly controlled currency and boost already extensive trade ties.
Managing security matters, and more specifically North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear bombs and the long-range missiles to carry them, has always been trickier.
China is seen as having unusual leverage with hard-to-read North Korea and is often pressed to do more to force change. They fought together in the 1950-53 Korean War against the United States, South Korea and their allies. More recently, North Korea has repeatedly looked to China for diplomatic cover when the United Nations has taken up North Korean nuclear and missile tests and its much-criticized human rights record.
Analysts don’t think Xi will abandon North Korea entirely as long as Seoul remains loyal to an alliance with Washington that has shielded the South from North Korean aggression and allowed it to build its impressive economy. China also craves stability and worries that too much pressure on Pyongyang could cause a North Korean collapse that would push swarms of refugees over the countries’ shared border.
Still, the worries about North Korea have helped draw Seoul and Beijing together. Officials in Seoul now expect China to take strong action over future provocations, especially if Pyongyang conducts what would be its fourth nuclear test as it moves toward building an arsenal of nuclear-tipped missiles that could reach the United States.