Chinese President Xi Calls For Restraint Over North Korea

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is heading to neighboring China on Wednesday on his first state visit to the Asian powerhouse, where he will hold talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other high-ranking officials.    

Moon and Xi last met on the sidelines of this year's ASEAN summit, which took place in November in the Philippines' capital Manila.

The South Korean leader's four-day China trip comes at a time of heightened tensions in Northeast Asia due to Pyongyang's advancing nuclear and missile programs.

On November 29, North Korea's reclusive regime led by dictator Kim Jong Un demonstrated its ability to target large parts of the US mainland by testing its Hwasong-15 ICBM, which the North claimed could deliver a "super-large heavy warhead" anywhere on the US mainland.

During his election campaign, Moon called for rapprochement and negotiations with Kim's regime. But it appears he's now changed his stance and is backing US President Donald Trump's strategy of imposing ever stringent sanctions and hardship on Pyongyang - even to the displeasure of China.

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Furious row  

Ties between Seoul and Beijing have also suffered in recent months due to a furious row over the deployment of the US-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system on South Korean soil.

China's anger at THAAD's deployment in the South is related to its fear that the system's powerful radar can gaze deep into China and compromise its military capabilities.

The dispute derailed trade and investment relations between South Korea and China, denting the South's economic growth and hurting its businesses.

The Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a Seoul-based think tank, estimates that the retaliatory measures imposed by Beijing have caused losses worth around $7.5 billion (€6.4 billion) to South Korean firms.

Wang Jiangyu, a Korea expert and associate professor at the National University of Singapore, describes the dispute surrounding THAAD as "a historic event," something that had never occurred in bilateral relations. "These were always good and stable; there was no strategic conflict between them," he said.

But South Korea reached an agreement with China in late October that they would normalize exchanges and move past the dispute over THAAD.

In Beijing, Moon and Xi will discuss ways to "peacefully resolve the North Korea crisis," South Korea's presidential Blue House said. At the same time, however, it made clear that there will be neither a press conference nor a joint statement by the two heads of state. This has to do with the divergent positions on the deployment of THAAD, according to government sources in Seoul.

In a tough spot

Moon currently finds himself in a tricky position. On the one hand, he doesn't want to annoy his American allies; on the other, he wants to restore normal relations with China. 

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"In Washington, many have interpreted this as a weakness of Moon," said Andray Abrahamian, a Korea expert and visiting scholar at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. From the South Korean point of view, he noted, it's extremely important to find a way out of the Chinese sanctions, not least because of Trump's threats to terminate the Korea-US free trade agreement.

Moon faces "a tightrope act" and his actions would probably fail to satisfy any of the two major powers completely, the expert said. "Moon is also trying to find new business partners in the ASEAN region to reduce over-reliance on China," Abrahamian pointed out. At present, a quarter of South Korea's total foreign trade is with China.

Observers remain skeptical as to whether the Moon-Xi meeting can lead to progress in resolving the North Korean problem.

A minor player?

"The North Korean crisis is primarily a subject between the People's Republic of China and the United States," said Wang Jiangyu. South Korea plays only a minor role, although it must bear the consequences for everything that happens on the Korean Peninsula, the expert added. 

China and South Korea, he noted, could do little more than reemphasize that war is not a solution. "China and the US still don't seem to be ready to cooperate on the North Korea issue."

Read more: 

- Why North Korea's latest ICBM launch is an opportunity

- Trump 'furious' over Seoul's North Korea 'appeasement'

"In the West, the influence of China on North Korea is overestimated. Ultimately, Kim Jong Un wants to negotiate only with the US," says Kim Hong-gul, son of the late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, whose legacy remains a source of controversy in South Korea.

During his presidency, Kim Dae-jung initiated the inter-Korean rapprochement process and met with the then dictator Kim Jung Il. Kim Dae-jung even received a Nobel Prize for his efforts to achieve peace.

Kim Hong-gul is one of only a few South Koreans who have met the North's current leader Kim Jong Un. 

"Moon's calls for China to put more pressure on North Korea would be meaningless," said Kim Hong-gul. "Beijing will not allow a collapse of the North Korean regime because it would be against its interests," he argued.

Kim Hong-gul, however, believes that after the imminent completion of its missile and nuclear programs, North Korea will return to the negotiating table. "For many, this may sound utopian, but North Korea is perfectly capable of making a 180-degree turn."

  • North Korean test of a Hwasong-14 (Reuters/KCNA)

    ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

    Major achievement

    In early June 2017, North Korea test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time. Testing an ICBM marked a major military achievement for Pyongyang and a serious escalation of tensions with the United States and its allies in the region, particularly South Korea and Japan.

  • North Korean public viewing of a Hwasong-14 test (Reuters/KCNA)

    ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

    Trouble with warheads

    At the time, defense experts said the ICBM could reach as far as the US states of Alaska and Hawaii. However, it was unclear if North Korea can field an ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear warhead on its cone that could survive reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. North Korean state media claimed the ICBM was capable of carrying a "large, heavy nuclear warhead" to any part of the United States.

  • Nordkorea Diktator Kim Jong-un (picture-alliance/dpa/KCNA)

    ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

    Pyongyang's nuclear tests - six times and counting

    The ICBM is believed to be a step forward in the North's nuclear program. Despite pressure from the international community, Pyongyang has made no secret of its nuclear ambitions. Alongside its ritual ballistic missile tests, North Korea has conducted nuclear tests on at least six occasions, including one in September 2017.

  • USS Carl Vinson (picture-alliance/Zumapress/M. Brown)

    ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

    US running out of patience?

    Responding to the first ICBM test with a show of force, the US and South Korean troops on conducted "deep strike" precision missile drills using Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and the Republic of Korea's Hyunmoo Missile II. In April, the US sent its Carl Vinson aircraft carrier towards the Korean Peninsula, saying it was taking prudent measures against the North.

  • Nordkorea Hwasong-14 Test (Getty Images/AFP/KCNA)

    ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

    Testing the boundaries

    Ignoring international condemnation, Pyongyang test-launched another rocket on July 28, 2017, just weeks after its first ICBM test. In both of the tests, North Korea used Hwasong-14 missile, but the second one reached a higher altitude and traveled a larger distance than the first one, according to the state media.

  • A person in Seoul looks at a TV report about the missile launch (picture-alliance/MAXPPP)

    ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

    Whole of US within range?

    Pyongyang conducted its third test November 29, using a newly developed Hwasong-15 missile. US, Japanese and South Korean officials said it rose to about 4,500 km (2,800 miles) and flew 960 kilometers (600 miles) over about 50 minutes before landing in Japan's exclusive economic zone off the country's coast.

  • Nordkorea Militärparade (Getty Images/AFP/E. Jones)

    ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

    One of the world's largest militaries

    Apart from a developing missile and nuclear program, North Korea has a powerful army with 700,000 active troops and another 4.5 million in the reserves. It can call upon almost a quarter of its population to serve in the army at any given time. The North's bloated army is believed to outnumber its southern neighbor's by two-to-one.

  • Nordkorea / Kim Jong Un / Militärs (picture-alliance/dpa)

    ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

    Vast capabilities

    According to the 2017 Global Firepower Index, the North has, as part of a far-reaching arsenal, 458 fighter aircraft, 5,025 combat tanks, 76 submarines, and 5,200,000 total military personnel. The picture above from 2013 shows leader Kim Jong Un ordering strategic rocket forces to be on standby to strike US and South Korean targets at any time.

  • TV report of a North Korean missile test (Reuters/K. Hong-Ji)

    ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

    Enemies all around

    Alongside the United States, Pyongyang views its neighbors South Korea and Japan as its two other main enemies. North Korea has used US military exercises in the region as means of galvanizing its people, claiming that the exercises are dress rehearsals for an impending invasion.

  • Tanks in a North Korean military parade (picture-alliance/dpa/KCNA)

    ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

    Huge, colorful demonstrations of military might

    Every year, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and citizens roll through the streets of the capital Pyongyang to take part in the North's military parades. Preparations for the rallies often begin months in advance, and the parades usually mark important anniversaries linked with the Communist Party or Kim Jong Un's family.

Additional reporting by Liu Shenjun.

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