After all the media glare and scrutiny of President Park Geun-hye's summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping late last month, experts point out three fundamental differences that exist between the two leaders, concerning their policies toward North Korea.
"Park, Xi and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang strongly emphasized ‘denuclearization' during the summit," said Moon Chung-in, a political science professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, speaking at a seminar hosted by the East Asia Foundation (EAF), a non-profit organization, last week. "But Xi and Li emphasized denuclearization of ‘Korean Peninsula,' whereas, Park emphasized denuclearization of ‘North Korea.'"
China objected to using the term ‘denuclearization of North Korea' in the joint communique adopted after the Korea-China summit, factoring in the relationship with its Cold War ally, Pyongyang, which is on its worst terms with Seoul. Instead, the two sides mentioned ‘denuclearization of Korean Peninsula' in the communique.
What terms China uses is important because it is an indicator of how China sees the current geo-political status of the Korean Peninsula.
Experts say using the words "Korean Peninsula" means that China is still maintaining a balanced stance between the two Koreas, meaning it still wants unification of the peninsula from mutual consensus.
The United States supports unification on South Korean terms.
The renowned professor also said that the two leaders are on different pages in the interpretation of launching a ‘dialogue' with North Korea.
"Xi stresses dialogue but focusing on a resumption of the six-party, South-North and U.S.-North Korea talks," said Moon. "However, Park tends to interpret dialogue as strategic discussion between Washington, Beijing and Seoul to take a coordinated approach on Pyongyang."
The Park administration is looking for tripartite cooperation as a new platform to corner North Korea into giving up its nuclear programs. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Seoul is preparing to host 1.5 track strategic dialogue comprised of officials, academics and experts from the three countries as early as this month. Insiders say the dialogue has been delayed several times due to China's unwillingness.
Whereas, many high-ranking Chinese officials including Xi have urged numerous times an immediate resumption of the six-party talks, but South Korea and U.S. say there will be no engagement with North Korea unless Pyongyang takes concrete steps to scrap its nuclear programs.
Lastly, the most striking conflict between the two lies in the fact that Park welcomes the so- called ‘pivot to Asia-Pacific' by U.S.
"Park fully committed support on the U.S.' rebalancing to Asia-Pacific and stressed a comprehensive strategic alliance with the US," said Moon. "She hopes she can enhance ties with China as well but I see conflict."
Beijing has been raising concerns over a U.S. strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific region because it sees the move as a containment strategy by strengthening ties with allies in the region such as South Korea and Japan.
"Suppose North Korea undertakes a fourth nuclear test and launches another rocket. Then South Korea would strengthen its alliance with the U.S. in terms of missile defense and conduct more joint military exercises in the West Sea," Moon said. "I don't think President Xi's personal relationship with President Park would excuse South Korea to do that."
Currently, around 28,500 American troops are stationed in South Korea.
Responding to the professor, Zhu Feng, an international relations professor at Peking University in Beijing, who also attended the EAF seminar said "Yes, there is some sort of difference and they cannot disappear overnight." "China is concerned about America's strategy and policy. Concerning denuclearization, I see no difference. Chinese vocabulary has been the same for 20 years."
The Chinese professor added that it will take time to see tangible changes in China's foreign policy as it focuses more on domestic issues such as the narrowing down of income disparity.
"Any successful redirection of China's foreign policy must be based on very successful domestic change. Without this there won't be any welcoming change in China's foreign policy," said Zhu. "The apparent change in China's foreign policy is largely due to the personal attractions of Xi."