Chinese and South Korean leaders seek to improve ties but Thaad remains thorny issue

South Korean President Moon Jae In (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the end of a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People inBeijing on Dec 14, 2017.
South Korean President Moon Jae In (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the end of a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People inBeijing on Dec 14, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - Chinese President Xi Jinping and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae In sought to patch up ties hit by Seoul's deployment of an anti-missile system that Beijing says hurts its security interests.

Mr Xi told Mr Moon his visit would improve bilateral relations that have suffered a setback while the South Korean leader called for a "new start" to ties at their summit in Beijing on Thursday (Dec 14).

The North Korean nuclear issue was also top on the two leaders' minds, with both sides stressing the need to resolve the issue through peaceful means.

Mr Moon's first state visit to China after taking office in May comes at a time when bilateral ties have cooled considerably over South Korea's deployment of the American Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) anti-missile system as defence against North Korea's nuclear threat. The Chinese objected to this, saying the Thaad system compromised their security interests.

In retaliation, China banned group tours to South Korea and cracked down on South Korean firms operating in China, among other measures.

South Korea's central bank said China's moves shaved 0.3 percentage point from the country's growth this year, reported Bloomberg News.

The two sides in a joint statement in late October agreed to improve ties and Mr Moon's visit is meant to do just that, including getting economic exchanges back on track.

Acknowledging "temporary difficulties", Mr Moon told Mr Xi at their summit: "I would like to build a solid foundation for opening up a new era in the relationship between our two countries, based on trust and friendship between us two leaders."

Mr Xi, for his part, said: "For reasons known to all, China-South Korea relations have experienced some setbacks."

He added: "I hope and believe that your visit will be an important opportunity to improve relations as we seek to find ways to carve a better path based on mutual respect and trust."

After their meeting, the two leaders oversaw the signing of several memoranda of understanding, including on starting negotiations to upgrade their bilateral free trade agreement and cooperation on environment and energy.

Earlier on Thursday morning, Mr Moon's visit to a trade fair was marred when two South Korean photojournalists were involved in a scuffle with Chinese security guards.

About a dozen South Korean journalists were following Mr Moon out of the venue of the fair, organised by the Korean Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, when they were stopped by the guards.

One of the photojournalists was surrounded by 15 guards and knocked to the ground. When another intervened, he was also beaten up, according to media reports.

"Emergency medical treatment was provided at the scene, and (the South Korean) government has expressed regret to the Chinese government, and strongly requested a clear investigation and follow-up measures," the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs was quoted as saying by the country's media.

Mr Moon will meet Premier Li Keqiang and parliamentary chief Zhang Dejiang on Friday afternoon before flying off to the western city of Chongqing.

On Friday morning, he will speak to Peking University students on the subject of cooperation between the young people of South Korea and China to create a bright future together.

However, in an indication that the Thaad issue is not yet behind the two countries as they look to boost ties, Mr Xi on Thursday reiterated China's stand on the issue, according to CCTV news.

Seoul has said it would not deploy additional Thaad batteries but it appears this is not enough for the Chinese.

Mr Xi told Mr Moon he hoped South Korea would "continue to deal with the issue appropriately".

Additional reporting by Chang May Choon in Seoul