South Korean President Moon in China on visit to repair ties

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping review the Chinese honor guard during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. (Nicolas Asfouri/Pool Photo via AP)

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is in Beijing on a visit to repair ties frayed by a dispute over the deployment of an American anti-missile system

BEIJING — Chinese President Xi Jinping told his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in on Thursday that Beijing wants to improve ties that have nosedived over China's objections to the deployment of an American anti-missile system.

Welcoming Moon at the Great Hall of the People in the heart of Beijing, Xi said relations had suffered setbacks "for reasons known to all."

"I hope and believe that your visit will be an important opportunity to improve relations as we seek to find ways to carve a better path based on mutual respect and trust," Xi said.

Moon responded that there have been "temporary difficulties" between the sides, but they "provided an opportunity to think from the other's perspective."

He called the meeting a "first step to develop the mutual relations to the next level."

The two leaders later presided over the signing of seven agreements covering cooperation in areas from food safety to the Winter Olympics.

In their remarks before reporters, neither leader explicitly mentioned the U.S. Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system, known as THAAD, that China has demanded South Korea remove.

However, state broadcaster CCTV said Xi reiterated China's opposition to the deployment to Moon and said he hoped South Korea would "continue to appropriately handle this matter."

China says the system allows South Korea and its U.S. ally to spy on military activity in northeastern China. South Korea says it is necessary to counter North Korea's missile threats.

The more than one-year-old dispute has taken a heavy toll on economic ties, with South Korean businesses in China suffering massive drops in sales and China suspending group tours to South Korea that are a mainstay of the local tourism industry

South Korean soap operas have been pulled off Chinese television and the country's popular K-Pop stars banned from visiting. South Korea's Lotte business group, which provided the land for the missile defense system, was forced to suspend business in China because of the anti-South Korea sentiment.

Moon, a left-leaning lawyer, has strived to balance South Korea's close political and military ties with the U.S. with its economic dependency on the Chinese market.

While the THAAD issue appears no closer to resolution, Beijing has said it approves of a pledge from Seoul not to expand it.

That set the stage for a visit by South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha to Beijing last month at which she and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi affirmed their commitment to repair relations.

But Thursday's visit was marred before the leaders met by reports that South Korean reporters following the president had been beaten by Chinese security agents in a scuffle that required intervention from South Korean presidential staff and emergency treatment for two journalists.

Seoul "regretted" that South Korean reporters were injured, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Noh Kyu-duk, who issued a strong request to Beijing to investigate the case and respond with "needed measures."

North Korea was also a focus of the talks. China is North Korea's most important political and economic partner, but has enforced increasingly strict United Nations sanctions against its neighbor while seeking to persuade all parties to return to denuclearization talks.

Xi told Moon that both China-South Korea relations and the situation on the peninsula as a whole are at a key stage.

"As friendly neighbors and strategic partners, China and South Korea have broad common interests in keeping the region peaceful and promoting mutual developments," Xi said.

Moon said he expected to reaffirm cooperation with China over the North Korean nuclear issue, which he said is "threatening the peace and security of not only the Northeast Asia region but the entire world."

Despite their traditional friendship, relations between North Korea and China have hit a low point in recent years.

A visit to Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, by Chinese special envoy Song Tao last month appears to have created no breakthroughs. Song visited as part of a tradition of exchanges between the ruling parties of the two countries, but left apparently without meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

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Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.

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