The Asia-Pacific region is a region that has recently become more and more sensitive in terms of security due to the North Korean issue, the United States (US)-China rivalry intensifying over Taiwan, and Japan’s armament efforts. With the involvement of extra-regional states in the internal dynamics of the region, this sensitivity causes the parties to act more belligerently. While North Korea’s military activities negatively affect regional security, China’s support for North Korea provides Pyongyang with room for maneuver and negatively affects South Korea-China relations.
North Korea’s expanding range of action is pushing Seoul to improve its relations with Washington and Tokyo and to develop a concrete will to overcome its problems with Japan. For example, South Korea’s new strategic security document, published on June 7, 2023, expressed the desire to have closer ties with Washington in order to overcome the North Korean threat  Therefore, this statement bears the traces of China’s increasing support for North Korea.
Some of the tension in relations stems from North Korea’s military activities and China’s failure to take the expected stance against North Korea; others stem from the statements made by both sides. For example, on April 23, 2023, South Korean leader Yoon Suk-yeol stated in an interview with Reuters News Agency that Taiwan is a global problem like North Korea. In response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned the South Korean Ambassador to the ministry and stated that the statement was unacceptable.
In addition to all these, North Korea’s spy satellite launch on June 1, 2023 ended in failure and the rocket crashed into the Yellow Sea. South Korea and China then engaged in a rivalry over the remains of rockets in the region. Because China intensified its patrols in the Yellow Sea after the incident.
Following the failed launch, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, hinted that more such tests would follow, showing that the Pyongyang regime had not given up on its spy satellite ambitions. After this incident, there were also discussions at the United Nations (UN). On June 2, 2023, the Western alliance, led by the United States, argued that Pyongyang’s satellite launch should be condemned for violating several United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions, while Russia and China opposed this demand.
The reaction from South Korea was seen on June 9, 2023, when South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin gave an interview to Yonhab News Agency. Park stated that the UNSC was paralyzed in responding to North Korea’s military actions and that Seoul urged Moscow and Beijing to play a constructive role on North Korea.
Another issue that contributed to the current tension in relations was the remarks made by Chinese Ambassador Xing Haiming during a meeting with Lee Jae-myung, leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Korea (KDP), on June 8, 2023. During the meeting, Xing stated that South Korea was paying too much attention to the US side and damaging its relations with its largest trading partner. Following the statements, the South Korean Foreign Ministry summoned Xing to the ministry and stated that his statements were irresponsible, meaningless and provocative.
In response to a question on the issue, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin pointed out that the problems between the Republic of Korea and China do not originate from Beijing, and that it is part of Xing’s duty to maintain a high degree of engagement with the South Korean government and other parties. Furthermore, on June 11, 2023, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that it had conveyed its dissatisfaction to the South Korean Ambassador to China.
Considering the statements made, it is possible to say that Seoul has hardened its stance against Beijing due to its long silence against Pyongyang and standing in the way of action against North Korea at the UN. Moreover, considering that elections are less than a year away in South Korea, Chinese Ambassador Xing Haiming’s meeting with KDP leader Lee Jae-myung, who is positioned against the Yoon government, and criticizing Seoul’s foreign policy orientations would not be considered acceptable by the South Korean government. Due to all these events, it can be said that the Yoon administration is trying to act more cautiously in its relations with Beijing.
In conclusion, the current state of Sino-South Korean relations suggests that they are beginning to fray. Although there are many factors contributing to this, the Seoul-Washington-Tokyo alliance is likely to solidify, especially as US-China competition intensifies in the Asia-Pacific.
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