Story highlights

Relations between Seoul and Beijing had been hurt by deployment of the THAAD missile system

China has reached out to both Koreas in recent weeks

CNN —  

South Korean leader Moon Jae-in will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing next week, as the security situation on the Korean Peninsula continues to worsen.

The two presidents will discuss denuclearization and peace on the peninsula, Moon’s spokesman Park Soo-hyun said Wednesday. This will be the third time Moon and Xi have met, with their last encounter at an Asian leaders’ summit in Vietnam in November.

Relations between Seoul and Beijing have been damaged by the ongoing North Korea crisis, particularly after the deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) defense system, which became fully operational in September.

Beijing was strongly opposed to that deployment, set in motion by Moon’s predecessor, impeached President Park Geun-hye. While Moon also voiced skepticism over the missile system before assuming power, analysts said ongoing North Korean missile testing made it difficult for him to roll back deployment.

China reacted to the roll-out with an unofficial embargo of South Korea, which hit the country’s tourism industry and prompted Chinese consumers to boycott Korean brands.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands as they pose for a photo during a meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum in Danang, Vietnam.

Rough road

Relations between Seoul and Beijing, though, began to improve in recent months. The two countries issued a statement in late October that recognized the “great importance” of the bilateral relationship.

“Both sides agreed that strengthening exchanges and cooperation between Korea and China would create harmony of interests in both sides, and agreed to resume exchanges and cooperation in all areas as soon as possible,” the statement said.

Tong Zhao, fellow at the Carnegie Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, told CNN at the time that it appeared the Chinese government had decided to move past the issue, which he said had led to major losses for both countries, diplomatically and economically.

“China needs a smooth relationship with South Korea in order to maintain its own geostrategic interests over the Korean Peninsula,” he said.

“China has great concerns about the US alliance in the region and if China can build good relations with one of those US allies, that can work to undermine (the alliance), in some sense.”

Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at Sydney’s Lowy Institute, said continued North Korean nuclear and missile testing had been pushing South Korea and the US closer together, undermining efforts by China to improve relations and increase its influence in the region ahead of the THAAD deployment.

01:22 - Source: CNN
Trump: Mutual commitment to denuclearize NK

Korean diplomacy

US Presidential Donald Trump has repeatedly stated that China is key to unlocking the North Korea issue. Beijing is Pyongyang’s major ally and trading partner, but many experts have cast doubt on the actual amount of influence Chinese officials have over their North Korean counterparts.

China sent an envoy to Pyongyang last month, something Trump described as a “big move” in the wake of his five-country trip to Asia.

Song Tao’s visit was the first by a Chinese official to North Korea in 2017, but there’s been no mention of any meeting between him and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

In a statement following Song’s return to Beijing, Chinese state news agency Xinhua said the ruling parties of the two nations had “pledged to strengthen inter-party exchange and coordination, and push forward the development of relations between the two countries.”

“The two sides also exchanged views on relations between the two parties and the two countries, and on the Korean Peninsula issue and other issues of common concern,” Xinhua said.

On Tuesday, a senior United Nations official arrived in North Korea for the first visit of its kind in six years. Jeffrey Feltman, the UN’s undersecretary-general for Political Affairs, will meet with officials and discuss “issues of mutual interest and concern,” during a trip that’s scheduled to end Friday, the UN said.

North Korea this week said joint military drills involving the US and its allies are pushing the region to the brink of nuclear war. On Wednesday, the weeklong drills saw a US B-1B bomber which flew in from Guam, join US F-22s and F-35Bs, and South Korean F-15K fighter jets over the Korean Peninsula.

A senior South Korean Air Force official told CNN on Monday that the war games will include attacks against a mock North Korean missile launch site with mock North Korean radars. The regularly scheduled drills come a week after Pyongyang conducted its most advanced missile test to date.

CNN’s Yuli Yang and Ben Westcott contributed reporting.