South Korea and China have agreed to put their bilateral relations back on the right track, apparently normalizing ties that have been soured over the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in South Korea, the foreign ministry said Tuesday.
They reiterated their long-held stance on issues related to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system deployed in South Korea but agreed to continue to discuss ways to resolve the differences going forward.
"The two sides attached great importance to the Korea-China relationship and decided to push for the further development of the strategic cooperative partnership," the foreign ministry said in a press release jointly announced by China.
"Both shared the view that strengthening exchanges and cooperation between Korea and China serves their common interests, and they agreed to expeditiously bring exchanges and cooperation in all areas back onto a normal track," it added.
They made the agreement based on a recent discussion held between Nam Gwan-pyo, a director of the presidential National Security Office (NSO) and Kong Xuanyou, Chinese assistant foreign minister.
The agreement came after South Korea and China saw their ties frayed by the THAAD controversy.
Since Seoul announced the deployment of the U.S. missile defense (MD) system on its soil in July last year, China has demanded the reversal of the decision, suspecting it is part of the U.S.-led MD and claims it would hurt its strategic security interest.
In apparent protest, Beijing has taken what appear to be retaliatory steps against South Korean companies and products in various areas.
An official from South Korea's presidential office Cheong Wa Dae later said the talks on resolving the THAAD issue began shortly after South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chinese leader Xi Jinping held a bilateral summit in July.
"China may have needed South Korea as a partner in resolving the issues on the Korean Peninsula peacefully ... and it may have realized it would be impossible to restore South Korea-China relations while leaving the THAAD issue as it was," the official told reporters, asking not to be identified.
The countries were apparently unable to completely resolve the prolonged dispute over the THAAD U.S. missile defense system deployed here, but said they will continue to find a solution through dialogue.
"The Korean side took note of China's position and concern regarding the THAAD issue, and made it clear that the THAAD system deployed in Korea is, pursuant to the original purpose of its deployment, not directed at a third country," the ministry said.
"The Chinese side reiterated that it opposes the deployment. ... At the same time, The Chinese side took note of the position stated by the Korean side," it added. "The two agreed to engage in communication on THAAD-related issues."
Still, the Cheong Wa Dae official insisted the joint statement has in fact put the past behind the two nations.
"China says it has not taken any retaliatory measures in the first place. Because it says any such measures were voluntarily taken by its people, any change in Chinese policy (toward South Korea) will take effect slowly. The Korea-China relationship will assume a desirable outlook," the official said.
Changes are already becoming visible, the official said, citing China's recent agreement to extend its bilateral currency swap arrangement with Seoul. A prominent Chinese travel agency was also said to have raised the possibility of resuming large group tours to South Korea, which have been prohibited by the Chinese government.
Highlighting a clear improvement in the countries' relationship, the leaders of the two countries will hold a bilateral summit on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which will be held in Da Nang, Vietnam, from Nov. 12-14, according to Nam, the NSO director.
The summit, the second of its kind, "can be said to be the first step in implementing the agreement to quickly put exchanges between the two countries in all areas on the right track," he told a press briefing. Moon and Xi first met on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit held in Germany in July.
Moon is also expected to hold bilateral talks with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang when they both take part in a regional forum hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, slated to be held in Manila from Nov. 12-14.
"Because Prime Minister Li is in charge of the bilateral relationship between South Korea and China, the meeting will be a chance to discuss ways to improve ties," a Cheong Wa Dae official said.
Seoul and Beijing also reaffirmed their joint efforts to peacefully denuclearize North Korea.
"The two sides reaffirmed the principles of realizing the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and peacefully resolving the North Korean issue, and they reiterated that they would continuously promote the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue through all diplomatic measures," the South Korean foreign ministry said. "To this end, both sides agreed to further enhance strategic communication and cooperation." (Yonhap)