South Korean leader visiting China to rebuild trust and seek ways to resolve nuclear crisis

SEOUL - South Korean President Moon Jae In's first state visit to China this week will mark a "significant milestone" as the two countries seek to rebuild trust, restore bilateral ties and find ways to resolve North Korea's nuclear crisis.

But it remains to be seen if the issue of a disputed United States missile shield will cloud his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday (Dec 14).

Mr Moon's four-day visit, which marks the 25th anniversary of bilateral relations and comes after a year of strained ties, will be a "significant milestone in recovering mutual trust... and helping put normal relations back on track", said Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha on Monday (Dec 11).

The summit would also be an opportunity for the two leaders to deepen their friendship and have in-depth discussions on how to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue and promote peace in the region, said Mr Nam Gwan Pyo of the presidential national security office here.

Angry that its security was being infringed by a South Korean decision to allow for the deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) missile shield on Korean soil, Beijing took a series of unofficial steps including a ban on K-pop stars as well as Korean companies operating in China and group travel to South Korea.

Tensions only eased after the two countries signed a landmark agreement on Oct 31 to move beyond the dispute.

Differences however remain, especially over the Thaad deployment, and analysts said both sides will try to avoid broaching the topic to avoid any unpleasantness.

There are no plans for the two leaders , who will be meeting for the third time since Mr Moon took office in May, to hold a joint press conference or issue a joint statement. They will issue separate media statements instead.

International relations professor Kim Jae Chun of Sogang University, who described the Thaad as a "thorny issue", said it could "ruin the atmosphere of the summit" if it surfaced. But he expects Mr Moon to try his best to "persuade China to put the past behind and move forward" so economic ties can be restored.

China is one of South Korea's top trading partners and the tourism boycott resulted in an estimated 7.5 trillion won (S$9.31b) in losses for South Korea.

Seoul is believed to have agreed to conditions known as the "three No's" - no deployment of additional Thaad batteries, no joining a US-led missile defence network and no trilateral security alliance with US and Japan - as the price to improve ties. The reported concessions drew criticism that South Korea had compromised too much and should stop kowtowing to China.

But Professor Moon Chung In, a special presidential adviser on foreign policy and national security, said South Korea "didn't promise the Chinese anything". "We merely expressed our views on their concerns," he said in response to a query from The Straits Times.

Still, there are worries that Mr Moon may be pressured to do more to assuage Chinese concerns about Thaad but Prof Kim doubts he will give in.

"I don't think Moon Jae In is preparing another 'gift' for Xi Jinping... South Korean public opinion is that he has already given too much, compromising our sovereign policy rights."

Mr Moon is set to arrive in Beijing on Wednesday (Nov 13) afternoon. He is expected to also hold talks with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang and National People's Congress Chairman Zhang Dejiang.

Mr Moon's visit will also take him to the southwestern city of Chongqing where he will meet its party chief and rising political star, Chen Min'er.

A South Korean presidential spokesman told The Straits Times that the visit to Chongqing - the first by a South Korean leader - holds both historical and economic significance.

She said South Korea's provisional government during Japanese colonial rule was located in Chongqing, and the city is also key to China's Belt and Road initiative. Major Korean companies including Hyundai Motor have investments there.