Top Chinese official meets, greets

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Top Chinese official meets, greets

A top-level Chinese envoy visited South Korea on Tuesday for a whirlwind round of meetings with government officials that appeared aimed at normalizing exchanges between Seoul and Beijing.

Last year, China launched a massive economic boycott of South Korea following its decision to deploy the U.S. Thaad antimissile system on its territory.

“Thanks to the wisdom and guidance of our two leaders, South Korean-Chinese cooperation has entered a new stage,” Li Hongzhong, a Chinese Politburo member, told Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon Tuesday while on an official state visit to South Korea.

This is the first time a high-level official of the Chinese Communist Party visited the country in response to a Foreign Ministry invitation since Liu Qibao, head of the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party Central Committee, visited Seoul in May 2016.

Following his talk with the prime minister, Li had lunch with Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha. He then made his way to the National Assembly for a meeting with Lee Hae-chan, the ruling Democratic Party’s chairman.

Li is currently the Communist Party Secretary of Tianjin and has a seat on the 25-member Central Politburo, the highest executive council of China’s ruling party after the Standing Committee.

Analysts say his visit carries the symbolic significance that high-level exchanges between South Korea and China are returning to levels prior to the Thaad deployment, a year after the two countries signed an agreement to put their bilateral relations back on track on Oct. 31, 2017.

Visits from high-level Chinese officials - ranging from provincial heads to party secretaries - have been increasingly frequent this year. Six top officials, including Li, have come to Seoul since late August.

The warming relations can also be seen in the larger number of Chinese tourists who have visited South Korea over China’s weeklong National Day celebrations from Oct. 1 to 7. Official estimates were at 85,588, a level comparable to the 88,376 who came to South Korea in the same period in 2016, before the Thaad row. Last year, only 62,855 tourists came.

Foreign direct investment (FDI) from China in South Korea increased in the third quarter this year to reach an estimated $2.39 billion. The entire amount of Chinese FDI in 2017 only reached around $810 million. Investment this year has even exceeded total Chinese FDI of $2.05 billion in 2016, when the conflict over Thaad began.

Analysts say the main reason behind Beijing’s changing attitude towards Seoul is the changing global political landscape. China is currently engaged in ­- and suffering from - a trade war with the United States and needs economic partners to hedge its losses. North Korea’s newfound stance of engagement has also raised Seoul’s profile in Beijing’s eyes.

“China fears that if South Korea is not appeased, it will become diplomatically isolated in regard to the North Korea issue,” said Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “Given that talk about a three-party peace settlement only between the Koreas and the United States has been discussed, Beijing feels that its position should not be narrowed on account of Thaad.”

Warming ties, however, have not spelled the end of Chinese retaliations over the Thaad deployment. Chinese group tours to Korea have only been allowed from six provinces in China, which include Beijing and Shandong Province. The situation for Lotte, the Korean company hit hardest by Chinese boycotts after it provided the land to the Korean government for Thaad, remains unchanged. A lawmaker revealed last week that the company’s plans to build theme parks in Shenyang and Chengdu have been derailed, and its supermarket chain remains under a boycott.

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