China’s top envoy makes complaint about Thaad

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China’s top envoy makes complaint about Thaad

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed disgruntlement to former Korean Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan with what he perceived as President Moon Jae-in changing his position on the deployment of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system.

A diplomatic source told the JoongAng Ilbo Thursday that at a forum last month in Beijing, Wang said to Lee, a lawmaker of the ruling Democratic Party, “Why have his words changed since you came as a special envoy?”

Lee visited Beijing in May as a special envoy of Moon, who was elected president in a snap election that month.

Lee held closed-door talks with Wang on June 28 while in Beijing to attend the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA). The meeting came just two days before President Moon’s first summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington.

On June 26, Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Kyung-wha said during a JoongAng Ilbo-CSIS Forum held in Seoul, “As my president himself made it clear on numerous occasions, my government has no intention to basically reverse the commitments made in the spirit of the [Korea]-U.S. alliance.”

She added, “Going through the environmental impact assessment is an issue of domestic due process. It does not mean that we will cancel or reverse the decision to deploy Thaad.”

Rep. Lee met Wang in Beijing on May 18 and one issue they discussed was Thaad.

Last month, Wang protested what he saw as a shift in Korea’s position on a withdrawal of the antimissile system by the Moon Jae-in administration.

According to the diplomatic source, Wang was quoted as having asked Lee, “Isn’t what you told me about Thaad then and the Korean government’s current position different?”

When Lee visited Beijing as Moon’s special envoy in May, he opted for strategic ambiguity and did not clearly indicate whether the Thaad system would be withdrawn or retained, according to one source well-informed about the issue.

“The Chinese side understood this as there being a possibility that it could be withdrawn, which built up their expectations,” the source said. “However, President Moon through his visit to the United States drew a clear position on the Thaad deployment issue. From China’s perspective, it seemed like Korea changed its words.”

On the Korean government’s decision to conduct an environmental impact assessment on the deployment of the Thaad battery, which could lead to a delay in its deployment, Wang was said to have responded, “China’s position has not changed in that it is not asking for a delay but for its withdrawal.”

Wang also was said to have told Lee, “The Thaad issue has grown beyond my reach.”

Those remarks came before Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Moon held their first summit on July 6 on the sidelines of the Group of 20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, and may have been an indication that resolving tensions over the Thaad issue has to be done between the two leaders.

Lee took part in the CICA forum as a non-government attendee, and the details of their discussions were not reported to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

His office told the paper that the conversation cannot be confirmed.

While President Xi invited Moon to visit China, possibly around the time of the 25th anniversary of bilateral ties between Seoul and Beijing, which falls on Aug. 24, there has been little progress in such plans amid continued tensions over Thaad.

A government official in Seoul said, “While the Korean Embassy in China is preparing commemorative events to mark the anniversary, details such as who will attend from the Chinese government have not yet been decided. Thus far, we are observing the situation calmly and preparing as well as we can.”

BY WIE MOON-HEE [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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