01.07.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

New complications in relations between South Korea and China

New complications in relations between South Korea and China

Recently, while outlining the deterioration in relations between Beijing and Seoul, the present author commented on a new scandal that further inflamed tensions. It has to do with highly critical comments made by Xing Haiming, China’s ambassador to Seoul, concerning South Korea’s foreign policy.

The problems began on June 8, 2023, when South Korean opposition leader Lee Jae-myung visited the residence of Chinese Ambassador Xing Haiming, for a dinner meeting in order to discuss Japan’s plans to dump radioactive waste water from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific. However, Xing read out a prepared statement to press representatives in which he expressed reservations concerning Korea’s growing rapprochement with the United States. The 15-minute speech, which the ambassador delivered in Korean, was broadcast live on the Democratic Party’s official YouTube channel.

Xing Haiming claimed that there were many problems in relations between China and South Korea, that Seoul bore responsibility for the increase in tensions between the two countries, and that “we will be grateful if Korea respects China’s key interests.” Xing also said that the trade deficit between South Korea and China was due to Seoul’s policy of attempting to decouple itself from the Chinese market.

At this point it is worth reminding readers that every time that Xing Haiming speaks out on matters of domestic politics his comments rub people up the wrong way then offended patriots will inevitably make a fuss, accuse Xing of having a colonial mindset and meddling in another country’s internal affairs. During the Moon administration US ambassador to Korea Harry Harris experienced similar treatment, including harassment from pro-government NGOs. But the Chinese ambassador’s comments, especially the last one, were seen as a warning to Seoul no to get too friendly with Washington, and that provoked an angry reaction from South Korea’s government.

Firstly, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry called in the ambassador to lodge a stern warning. And then on June 9, Chang Ho-jin, South Korea’s first deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, summoned Xing Haiming to express deep regret over his remarks concerning Seoul’s foreign policy.  Chang Ho-jin told Xing that his criticisms of South Korea’s government were incorrect, inconsistent with diplomatic protocol and in violation of the Vienna Convention, which governs the conduct of diplomatic missions in order to promote friendly relations between countries. “The ambassador’s comments could be seen as interference in Seoul’s domestic policies,” he added.

The presidential administration also expressed concern. “The role of an ambassador should be aimed at enhancing relations between the home country and the host country. If they do not carry out their role accordingly, it may harm the national interests of both nations,” Lee Do-woon, press secretary for the President, told journalists on Monday. In conclusion, Lee Do-woon said that Beijing should “take reliable measures in relation to its ambassador” (although it is unlikely that he will be recalled) since the logic adopted by Xing Haiming in his analysis of relations between Korea and China is incorrect and is not conducive to friendly relations.

On June 12 the issue of Xing Haiming’s statements was discussed in the National Assembly. MPs from the ruling party expressed their dissatisfaction with the ambassador’s words. Specifically, MP Kim Seok-ki called on the diplomat to be declared a persona non grata because of his disrespect for the Republic of Korea. And MPs from the opposition Toburo (Democratic) Party claimed that an unfriendly actions in relation to China were harming the national economy. The Democrat MP Yun Ho-jung stated that the US and EU take possible risks into account when conducting their foreign policy, while Seoul is adopting a policy of open antagonism to China.

Secondly, almost every significant Conservative politician had their say. Park Jin, the Foreign Minister, said that Xing had gone too far, and that “the role of an ambassador is to enhance friendship, not to spread misunderstandings.” Han Duck-soo, the Prime Minister, also emphasized that an ambassador’s role should be to strengthen relations between his country and the host country, and called Xing’s statements “highly inappropriate.” And the Mayor of Seoul, Oh Se-hoon, criticized the Chinese ambassador for his “unbelievable diplomatic discourtesy” and criticized Lee Jae-myung for not speaking out during his conversation with the ambassador.

On June 13 Yoon Seok-yeol himself questioned whether the ambassador had “an attitude of mutual respect” to his host nation and was in command of the skills required of a diplomat. The head of state described the ambassador’s unveiled criticism of the government’s pro-US policies as “inappropriate conduct and comments which make the South Korean public feel uncomfortable,” adding that relations between the two countries were “based on the principle of mutual respect and shared interests.”

The leader of the ruling People Power Party, Kim Gi-hyeon, also criticized the meeting. He described the Chinese diplomat’s statements as an overt interference in Korea’s internal affairs, and a serious breach of diplomatic protocol and an expression of contempt that was reminiscent of “the conduct of an imperial commander in an occupied nation.” And Lee Jae-myung, instead of putting an end to the ambassador’s criticisms and complaints, listened to him for 15 minutes, thus allowing South Korea’s national prestige and the patriotic pride of its 50 million citizens to be disparaged. Lee should make his position clear – was he the leader of the country’s main opposition party or the head of the South Korean branch of the Chinese Communist Party, Kim Gi-hyeon asked. He then called on Lee Jae-myung to make a public apology for his behavior to the Korean public.

Even US National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby has commented on Xing Haiming’s conduct: “South Korea is a sovereign, independent nation, a terrific ally and a great friend not just in the region but around the world, and they have every right to make the kinds of foreign policy decisions they deem are appropriate,” he said.

The opposition-supporting Korea Times has described Xing as an “undiplomatic diplomat”, adding: “The Chinese envoy often goes too far, and in the wrong direction… It was an intolerable interference in another country’s internal affairs and a thinly veiled threat.” The publication emphasized that Korea’s deficit in its bilateral trade with China was due to the fact that, at a time of emerging economic security, Korea was able to, and had a duty to diversify its trading relationships in order to minimize its over-dependence on a small number of partners. It then cited Beijing’s economic retaliation following Korea’s deployment of a US missile defense system, which had resulted in a fall in bilateral trade. At the same time, Korea Times also criticized Yoon Seok-yeol for his failure to adopt a clear policy in relation to China.

In response to the Korean Foreign Ministry’s summoning of Xing Haiming, Beijing summoned Chung Jae-ho, South Korea’s ambassador to China, to express its objections and serious concern over the South Korean government’s unreasonable response to the meeting between the Chinese ambassador and the leader of the opposition. Nong Rong, China’s Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs, expressed “serious concern and dissatisfaction” to Chung Jae-ho, reminding him that in the interest of promoting understanding and cooperation between the two countries, Xing Haiming was required to liaise and exchange viewpoints with representatives from different circles in Korean society. The Chinese diplomat requested the Republic of Korea to reflect on the causes of the problems in the two countries’ relations, take the current difficulties affecting the two countries’ shared agenda seriously, and respect the spirit of the joint statement that China and the Republic of Korea adopted when they established diplomatic relations. However, the Chinese government insisted that the Korean ambassador had not been specially summoned to the Foreign Ministry, but that this meeting had been arranged in advance.

In the evening of June 9, Wang Wenbin, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry also spoke out in support of Xing Haiming, stressing that “the difficulties and challenges affecting relations between China and South Korea are not caused by China,” and then reiterating earlier comments: “Ambassador Xing’s duties include engaging with South Korea’s government, political parties and all sections of the Korean public, exchanging views on bilateral relations and issues affecting both countries, and sharing China’s position and concerns… We hope that the relevant authorities in South Korea are able to see this issue in perspective and focus on the best way to approach problems and ensure the stability and growth of relations between China and South Korea.”

Speaking about relations with China, South Korea’s National Security Advisor Cho Tae-yong said on June 14: “As far as relations between China and South Korea are concerned the government’s position remains unchanged: we need to develop these in a healthy manner, based on two key concepts – mutual respect and shared interests… I therefore consider that we should avoid any actions that bring no benefit but rather harm the healthy development of ties between South Korea and China.”

While the above scandal has been unfolding, there have been a number of less significant incidents which have been blown up by the media and as a result have made an enduring impact. For example, an anonymous source cited by the Korea Times has accused China of “waging a campaign of sabotage against Korea,” by undermining Busan’s bid to host EXPO-2030 (Seoul, naturally, is lobbying on its behalf), and instead promoting the rival bidder, Riyadh.

And then there is the recent case in which a former executive from Samsung Electronics was arrested and charged with stealing trade secrets in order to set up a copycat computer chip plant in China.

The 65-year old man, who has not yet been publicly named, worked for Samsung for 18 years, and then worked as a manager in Sk Hynix, another major Korea chip manufacturer, which trails behind Samsung in terms of market share. In view of his experience, the prosecutors refer to him as a “leading Korea expert in the field of semiconductor manufacturing.”

He attracted more than 200 specialists from Samsung and Sk Hynix by offering them higher salaries, smuggled essential technology owned by Samsung out of the country, and established chip production companies in China and Singapore with the support of Chinese and Taiwanese investors. Samsung is estimated to have incurred losses of at least 300 billion won ($233 million) as a result of his theft of technical trade secrets, which allegedly included microcircuit layout designs and engineering data for the design of clean rooms to prevent contamination during semiconductor production.

Controversially, in a bid to paper over the scandal, five MPs from the Democratic Party flew to China “to meet with Chinese political and business representatives.” In the course of these meetings, officials from the National People’s Congress and the Chinese Foreign Ministry requested South Korea to reaffirm its stance on Beijing’s One China policy as set out in the joint statement signed when diplomatic relations between the two countries were established in 1992.

On June 15 another seven MPs from the Democratic Party arrived to Beijing on a trip that will take in an international exhibition in Tibet. Their trip was funded by China, and the MPs insist that their journey is solely for the purposes of cultural exchange, but although it is normal in such cases for the host country to pay for the flights and other expenses, Korea’s Conservatives are questioning the need for these trips.

But let us return to Xing Haiming’s speech. According to Lee Sang-man, professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University, aggressive statements of this kind reflect Beijing’s growing concern about the strengthening of links between South Korea and the US, and also the three-party cooperation between South Korea, the US and Japan. “From China’s perspective, Korea is the weak link in the US-led Asian alliance against China. Adding pressure on Korea is Beijing’s strategy to deter strengthening ties between Korea, the US and Japan.” However, the Chinese envoy’s rhetoric does not mean that the Chinese government will return to its previous combative foreign policy, and it should rather been seen as an expression of disappointment in the face of Korean government’s reluctance to improve relations.

After all that has happened, will Xing Haiming be sent back to China? Lee Sang-man is doubtful that China will replace Xing Haiming, and if it does this will not be as a punishment but rather part of a normal rotation of diplomatic staff. He was appointed to his current post in January 2020, and has served more than three years. If he does return to China, this will probably be for a promotion. For example, Lu Shae, China’s ambassador to France, who has angered his host nation with his comments supporting Russia in the Ukraine conflict, is expected to be promoted once he returns to China.

Nevertheless, Professor Lee believes that South Korea’s government should be more circumspect: “Both parties need to find a way to de-escalate the tensions. Otherwise, the situation will become worse for both sides… Our diplomatic channels with China must also remain open. But Beijing also needs to do its bit and respect our relationship with the US.”


Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook.”

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