A rush to ChinaForeign Minister Chung Ui-yong holds his first meeting with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in China Friday. Most Korean foreign ministers visited Washington after taking office. His predecessor Kang Kyung-wha and her predecessor Yun Byung-se did so one month after their appointments. In contrast, Chung is going to China, ignoring other senior officials’ reluctance to take trips overseas due to the pandemic. That shows how much importance he attaches to China as a diplomatic partner.
The date of his meeting with Wang also overlaps with the date for a tripartite meeting among heads of security offices of Korea, the U.S. and Japan. The trilateral meeting aims to draw a joint strategy to help weaken the anti-U.S. alliance led by China and North Korea amid deepening Sino-U.S. conflict. The location of the meeting — the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland — also symbolizes the Biden administration’s hopes for its Indo-Pacific strategy.
Nevertheless, the head of Korea’s foreign service flies to China to bolster Korea’s close relationship with China — more specifically, he flies to Xiamen, Fujian Province, a focus of tension between the U.S. and China because of human rights violations that take place there. Beijing’s selection of the site can only be seen as pressure on Korea to take its side. Chung’s acceptance of the location provokes worries about the Moon Jae-in administration and its approach to China. Brushing off such worries, Chung said it’s only a coincidence. Excuses like that only increase concern.
Moon repeatedly affirmed the direction of our diplomacy after the launch of the Biden administration. To the U.S. Secretary of State and Defense Secretary on their recent visit to the Blue House, Moon stressed the importance of the “Korea-U.S. alliance” as the foundation of Korea’s security and diplomacy. Chung’s rush to China, therefore, opens a huge gap between the administration’s words and actions. Japan’s Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi also received an invitation from Wang. He has not visited China yet.
Over the last four years, the Moon administration gave the impression that it is tilting to China. Chung’s trip will certainly intensify that impression. To dispel concerns, Chung must engage in confident diplomacy with China. Otherwise, Korea could be pried away from its decades-old alliance and be subjugated to China. Beijing surely wants to draw from Chung remarks that Korea will not take America’s side. Chung must be extra careful. That’s the only way to prevent a security crisis and strengthen our diplomatic leverage.