China sidestepped blame Friday for the beating of a South Korean photojournalist by Chinese security, an incident that has marred a visit by the South Korean president to mend frayed ties with Beijing.
The incident has sparked outrage in South Korea, with the opposition calling on Moon to cancel the rest of his four-day state visit, his first in China since taking office in May.
A photographer was thrown to the floor and kicked, reportedly suffering fractured facial bones and ruptured vessels in an eye, as Chinese security personnel stopped South Korean photographers following Moon’s delegation at a trade show on Thursday.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang expressed “concern” that someone had been hurt and said an investigation was ongoing.
Officials from both countries have discussed the issue and “we hope we can get the facts straight as soon as possible,” he said.
But, he added: “This event was organised by the South Korean side, the journalists involved were invited by the South Korean side, and the security guards were also recruited and hired by the Korean side.”
The South Korean organisers should have “found an equilibrium” between the journalists’ desire for more time with and proximity to the president, and the guards’ “professional requirements… (to) sufficiently guarantee the safety and dignity of the people they protect,” he said.
They should have “from the very beginning made clear what rights the media have” as well as “how much leeway and space to manoeuver” the guards had to deal with emergencies, he added.
‘Warmth of springtime’
Relations between Beijing and Seoul soured after South Korea allowed the United States to install the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system to guard against threats from North Korea.
China considers THAAD a threat to its own security, and has imposed economic measures against South Korean companies in a move seen as retaliation.
Moon and President Xi Jinping both indicated their willingness to reset relations when they held talks on Thursday — a message that was repeated in the South Korean leader’s meeting on Friday with Premier Li Keqiang.
Moon said he hoped that “the recovery and development of China and South Korean relations can happen as quickly as the frequency of our meetings”, noting that he had met Li for the first time just a month before.
Li also heralded the thaw, saying “both sides are looking forward to the warmth of the springtime.”
But South Korean newspapers reported that Moon had his first three meals in China without any Chinese officials on hand, with an earlier lunch with Li unilaterally scrapped.
He was greeted by an assistant minister when he landed, while Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was welcomed last year by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
‘Mistreatment’ and ‘lynching’
While Moon courted Chinese leaders, South Korean media, opposition parties and internet users voiced outrage over the reporter’s beating, many saying the incident epitomised the Asian giant’s attitude towards its smaller neighbour.
The main opposition Liberty Korea Party urged Moon to return home immediately, saying the violence was a “terror attack against the whole of South Korea”.
“Mistreatment of President Moon and lynching of a Korean journalist — This is the Chinese Dream”, the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest-circulation daily, headlined its editorial, referring to Xi’s promise of prosperity and influence.
Chosun said the perceived diplomatic slight and the violence against a member of Moon’s presidential press corps were “not accidental” and were driven by “China’s arrogant and violent nature” and “Seoul’s subservient attitude”.
The English-language Korea Times called it “an appalling use of force by Chinese security”.
“We are dumbfounded and enraged at such violence against visitors…. We are outraged by the rude welcome”, it said.
Internet users also reacted angrily.
“China trampled upon Korea and the whole Korean people,” one said in a posting.