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South Korean leader criticises China envoy over ‘inappropriate’ remarks

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By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) -South Korea’s president stepped up criticism of China’s ambassador on Tuesday, saying the envoy had been disrespectful in suggesting South Korea had made the wrong choice by siding with the United States against China.

The ambassador, Xing Haiming, sparked controversy last Thursday when, in comments to an opposition politician, he warned South Korea against making a “wrong bet” when it came to Sino-U.S. rivalry and urged it to stop “decoupling” from China.

South Korea’s foreign ministry summoned Xing on Friday to issue a protest and express “strong regret” over comments that the ministry said were “provocative” and a possible interference in internal affairs.

President Yoon Suk Yeol made his disapproval clear in a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, questioning Xing’s approach as a diplomat.

“Looking at Ambassador Xing’s attitude, it’s doubtful if he has an attitude of mutual respect or promotion of friendship as a diplomat,” the Yonhap news agency, citing unidentified people at the meeting, reported Yoon as saying.

“Our people are displeased with his inappropriate behaviour.”

Yoon’s office did not immediately comment on the Yonhap report but a presidential official said Xing had made “distorted” remarks and the government was awaiting “appropriate measures” by China.

South Korea has been a staunch U.S. ally for decades and is host to nearly some 28,000 U.S. troops but it has developed extensive economic ties with China in recent years.

China’s foreign ministry called in South Korea’s ambassador on Saturday to express its “serious concern and dissatisfaction” over Seoul’s “improper reaction” to Xing’s comment.

On Tuesday, it was more conciliatory.

Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said China regretted some South Korean media reports that had been “inconsistent with the facts” in reporting Xing’s comments and had even attacked him personally but he also stressed the benefit of good ties.

“Promoting the healthy and stable development of China–South Korea relations serves the common interests of both sides. We hope that the Republic of Korea will meet China halfway,” Wang told a regular press conference.

A growing number of legislators from Yoon’s ruling party have been calling for Xing to be declared “persona non grata” and expelled.

“If Ambassador Xing does not issue an official apology and continues his rude behaviour, we should consider taking steps to banish him,” said Kim Seok-ki, a member of parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

Foreign Minister Park Jin said on Monday Xing’s remarks violated the Vienna Convention governing diplomats’ duties including promoting friendly relations.

When asked about declaring Xing persona non grata, Park said the ministry had “clearly warned that he would be responsible for all consequences”.

Xing has decades of experience working in both South and North Korea.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Soo-hyang Choi; Additional reporting by Liz Lee in Beijing; editing by Ed Davies, Robert Birsel)

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