Top China, South Korea Diplomats Hold Rare Talks in Beijing

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(Bloomberg) -- The top diplomats from South Korea and China held their first face-to-face talks in Beijing in some six years, showing differences over US policies on chip exports and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

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South Korea’s Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul and China’s Wang Yi agreed in their talks Monday to cooperate for a trilateral summit with Japan “to be held soon” in Seoul, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said. Seoul has said the meeting could take place on May 26-27.

The trilateral summits have been on hold since 2019 due to the pandemic and political tensions. China has been feeling pressure as Japan and South Korea moved closer to Washington in recent years. The US and its two key allies in Asia have raised their security cooperation to some of the highest levels in decades, largely because of concern about North Korea’s behavior and China becoming more assertive militarily.

Wang pledged to work with South Korea to improve ties, according to a statement from China’s Foreign Ministry, and appeared to reference Beijing’s concern about Seoul’s closer relations with Washington.

He urged South Korea to “abide by the one-China principle by properly and prudently handling Taiwan-related issues,” according to the statement. “Both sides should jointly oppose trade protectionism, safeguard the free international trading regime, and ensure the stability and smoothness of the production and supply chains,” he said.

Read More: China, Japan, South Korea Aim to Hold Summit in May, Reports Say

Cho also expressed concern over North Korea’s growing military cooperation with Russia and asked China to use its influence on Pyongyang to rein in Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons program. Beijing has been Pyongyang’s biggest benefactor for years, providing a lifeline that has kept its economy afloat. China has also called on the US and its partners to do more to bring stability to the peninsula.

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Seoul has accused North Korea of accelerating its weapons development in recent years and sending munitions to Russia for its war on Ukraine in return for food, raw materials and parts for arms manufacturing. South Korean officials say the cooperation could increase Kim’s threat to the region. Pyongyang and Moscow have denied the accusations about their trade activities.

The meeting of foreign ministers also took place under the shadow of an intensifying US-China rivalry for chip supremacy.

Washington has imposed a wall of restrictions to deny Beijing access to the latest semiconductors, and the Biden administration is enlisting its partners to adopt export controls on sophisticated equipment needed to make the most advanced chips.

Read More: Global Chips Battle Intensifies With $81 Billion Subsidy Surge

South Korea has the biggest market share of memory chips in China, and it is the second-largest provider of silicon wafers for Chinese companies after Japan, according to a February report from the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy.

On the economic front, data this year showed that exports to the US overtook China as the biggest market for South Korean goods abroad for the first time in two decades.

The upcoming trilateral summit will be the first major test on diplomatic front for South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol as he tries to maintain the momentum for the remaining three years of his term after suffering a major defeat in parliamentary elections last month.

The last time a South Korean foreign minister visited Beijing for direct talks was in late 2017, though Wang met former South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin in Busan in November 2023.

--With assistance from Jacob Gu.

(Updates with details of talks from South Korea.)

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