South Koreans fuming over Trump-Xi chat
Blue House contenders vow to 'correct' remark on peninsula's history
MITSURU OBE and KIM JAEWON, Nikkei staff writers
TOKYO/SEOUL -- Chinese President Xi Jinping's apparent views on the history of the Korean Peninsula have become one of the hottest issues in South Korea's presidential race.
In recounting his recent summit with Xi to The Wall Street Journal on April 12, U.S. President Donald Trump said that "Korea actually used to be a part of China." Many South Koreans were enraged, taking the comment as a reflection of Xi's position.
In the absence of independent confirmation, others are not quite sure who to blame -- Xi or Trump.
"China should learn history again," Ahn Cheol-soo, the People's Party candidate for the May 9 election, told reporters, evidently assuming that Xi said something along those lines. The entrepreneur-turned-presidential contender added that if he wins the election, he will "explain it to President Trump and correct [the historical record] during a Korea-U.S. summit."
Beijing has tried to downplay the controversy, with a spokesperson saying, "The Korean people do not have to worry."
South Korea is increasingly apprehensive toward its giant neighbor. Seoul's decision to deploy a U.S. missile defense system has prompted Beijing to retaliate with economic screw-tightening, including curbs on travel to the South and a suspension of Lotte Mart stores.
Yoo Seung-min, a presidential candidate from the conservative Bareun Party, was unnerved by the history comment. Ji Sang-wook, Yoo's chief spokesman, expressed concern that China's response to the missile defense system might be based on such an understanding of the past.
"China needs to know that the Republic of Korea has kept its identity and sovereignty for 5,000 years, defeating many attacks from China," Ji said in a statement.
Liberty Korea Party candidate Hong Joon-pyo on Friday said Xi's position runs counter to that of Zhou Enlai, China's first premier, who recognized Korea's independence in the past. Hong, a former South Gyeongsang Province governor, said he would change China's understanding if he is elected president.
So far, presidential front-runner Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea has not commented on the matter. But election watchers say the issue may be raised in an upcoming TV debate on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the South Korean government also rejected the thesis that Korea once belonged to China. "For thousands of years in history, Korea has never been part of China," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Thursday.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, China's position as the main trading partner and security guarantor of the communist North has given it considerable influence over the peninsula. And now, the vacillating positions of the Trump administration have many South Koreans feeling whiplashed.
During his election campaign, Trump repeatedly mentioned the possibility of withdrawing U.S. forces from South Korea unless the country shoulders more of the responsibility for its own defense. More recently, U.S. officials have tried to shore up Korean confidence in the bilateral alliance, with Vice President Mike Pence promising an "overwhelming and effective response" to any attack.
Trump's account of his Florida meeting with Xi might reflect his own proclivity for simplifying complex issues. Analysts say the U.S. leader tends to echo the words of the last person he spoke with, rather than digesting information from a variety of sources and expressing his own conclusions.