South Korean opposition to send fence-mending delegation to China

Opposition lawmakers to visit as tension over Seoul’s plan to deploy US missile shield is blamed for Beijing’s decision to ground charter flights

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 January, 2017, 11:41pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2017, 12:04am

A group of South Korean opposition lawmakers will visit China on Wednesday amid signs of deepening tension between Beijing and Seoul over the deployment of a US anti-missile system in the South.

The visit by eight lawmakers from the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea was aimed at “delivering messages” from the party’s presidential hopefuls, including Moon Jae-in, on the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system, the Korea Times reported.

During their three-day trip, the group is scheduled to meet government officials including Foreign Minister Wang Yi and scholars in a bid to calm Beijing’s fury and ease China’s ban on Korean stars and movies.

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The visit came as the Chinese government rejected applications from three South Korean airlines to run chartered flights between the countries for the Lunar New Year festival later this month, Yonhap News Agency reported.

The latest move, affecting eight non-scheduled flights by Korean Air Lines, Asiana Airlines and Jeju Air, is widely seen as Beijing’s continued retaliation against Seoul’s decision to deploy the THAAD system.

Citing the South Korean ministry of transport, the agency said the rejection was delivered by Chinese aviation authorities last Friday.

“Usually, both countries communicate before [any decision] on the chartered flight issue, but this time we didn’t and were also given no specific reason for the disapproval,” a ministry official was quoted as saying.

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Two Chinese carriers – China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Air – had also withdrawn plans to run chartered flights to South Korea for the busy holiday season, the agency said.

The companies cited the “internal Chinese environment” as the reason for the cancellation without further elaboration, the South Korean ministry said.

The Chinese government did not respond to requests for a comment yesterday.

Sun Xingjie, a Korean affairs specialist at Jilin University, said cancelling flights during a busy season appeared to be aimed at putting pressure on Seoul.

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“South Korea remains one of the most popular destinations for Chinese tourists and the Chinese New Year is definitely one of the busiest travel seasons of the year,” he said. “It may be a business decision, but everyone knows what’s really at play behind the Chinese moves.”

He warned the once close economic relations between the two nations were likely to suffer further setbacks from the diplomatic tensions.

China is South Korea’s biggest trading partner and South Korea became China’s second-largest early last year.

Both Sun and Cui Zhiying, a Korean affairs analyst at Shanghai’s Tongji University, said the China trip by the opposition party lawmakers was unlikely to ease heightened tensions between Beijing and Seoul.

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“South Korea is still reeling from great uncertainties following the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye,” Cui said.

“Although the opposition party is traditionally more friendly towards Beijing, it is too early to say if bilateral ties can be improved any time soon with the presidential election still months away,” he said.

Sun also said the opposition party’s visit to China would be unlikely to reshape Seoul’s stance on THAAD. “I don’t think the strained bilateral relations can be improved before the end of the Korean presidential election because Seoul, which has been caught in the US-China rivalry, is unlikely to show flexibility on THAAD,” he said.

Moon, 63, is leading in approval polls of the South Korean presidential candidates.