President Yoon invites Xi Jinping to Seoul as both nations agree to boost ties

China's top legislator Li Zhanshu (left) met South Korean parliament speaker Kim Jin-pyo in Seoul on Sept 16. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL - South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has invited Chinese leader Xi Jinping to visit Seoul, in a bid to boost bilateral ties, as he met China’s top legislator to mark 30 years of diplomatic relations between the two neighbours.

A visit by Mr Xi will “serve as important momentum to open up a new chapter in Seoul-Beijing relations in the next 30 years”, Mr Yoon’s office cited him as saying on Friday. 

In response, Mr Li Zhanshu, China’s third-highest-ranking official and chairman of the National People’s Congress, said he will deliver the message to Mr Xi. He also asked Mr Yoon to visit Beijing at a convenient time.

A visit by Mr Xi has been in the talks since 2020, when South Korea, under the administration of then President Moon Jae-in, sought to normalise ties with China after suffering Beijing’s economic retaliation over Seoul’s deployment of an American anti-missile system in 2017.

Mr Xi last visited South Korea in 2014 during the tenure of president Park Geun-hye. 

Mr Yoon and Mr Li also agreed on the need for close communication on sensitive issues, and to make sure that the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) system does not become a stumbling block in China-South Korea ties.

Mr Li’s visit to Seoul - at the invitation of National Assembly Speaker Kim Jin-pyo - comes at a time when South Korea is caught between the intensifying strategic rivalry between its security ally United States and China, its largest trade partner.

The US has sent a flurry of senior officials to Seoul to urge the Yoon administration to support US-led economic initiatives aimed at curbing China’s growing capability in areas such as memory chips, which South Korea is also strong in.

Mr Li’s visit is viewed as China’s attempt to boost economic ties with South Korea and remind its neighbour to remain neutral instead of siding with the US.

Earlier on Friday, he visited LG Science Park, the South Korean conglomerate’s main research hub for electronics, chemicals, telecommunications and other industries.

The facility had welcomed US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in July. She stressed the importance of building more resilient supply chains by the US together with its trusted allies.

In a press statement, Mr Kim said he and Mr Li had comprehensive discussions on how to promote inter-parliamentary cooperation to improve bilateral ties. He also proposed a trilateral meeting among the parliamentary leaders of South Korea, China and Japan.

“Amid the changing political climate, raising mutual understanding and deepening mutually beneficial cooperation is critical to the next 30 years of bilateral relations,” said Mr Kim.

They also discussed how to accelerate negotiations on the Korea-China Free Trade Agreement, with Mr Kim noting that bilateral trade between the two countries has increased about 50 times in the past three decades to reach US$300 billion (S$422 billion) last year.

He voiced “strong hope” that the two sides will “re-examine and reinforce the communication and cooperation system for the stable management of the supply chain” and “promptly advance the Korea-China Free Trade Agreement follow-up negotiations”.

They also agreed to boost strategic communications to resolve North Korea’s nuclear issue.

Amid a stalemate in nuclear talks with the US, Pyongyang has tested at least 18 rounds of missiles this year - up from four last year - and is widely expected to conduct a nuclear test any time.

Mr Li said that protecting peace on the Korean peninsula “is our common interest”, adding that the two sides will need to strengthen communications to find a political solution.

Mr Kim asked China to “play a constructive role”, noting that it has “consistently supported peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and resolution of issues through dialogue”.

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