South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong (right) poses with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) before their meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on September 15. Photo: AFP / Yonhap

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had much to smile about when he pressed flesh with his South Korean counterparts in Seoul on Wednesday – but he should also be asking his advisors why his country’s image is taking such a battering among the Korean public.

“China and South Korea are close neighbors that cannot relocate themselves and partners that can’t part ways with each other,” Wang said during a meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong.

Calling on Beijing and Seoul to foster a “sense of community” amid a “major shift” in global affairs, he urged South Korea not to join the US-led “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing group – as has recently been discussed – calling the arrangement “outdated.”

Wang, in Seoul on a two-day visit following stops in Singapore, Cambodia and Vietnam, later met President Moon Jae-in, who asked for China’s cooperation in Seoul’s attempts to engage Pyongyang.

Beijing’s upbeat foreign minister is on a charm offensive at a time when a noteworthy shift in South Korean public opinion toward China is driving a hairline crack into what otherwise looks like a fruitful, if pragmatic, partnership.

On the one hand, trade remains vibrant and the two capitals will have plenty to laud when they celebrate the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties next year. Moreover, Moon has remained faithful to the “Three Nos” he offered Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2017 – seen as a diplomatic victory for China.

But the left-leaning Moon leaves office following presidential elections next March. And even Moon swallowed multiple humiliations from the Donald Trump administration in order to keep Seoul’s alliance with Washington alive.

Meanwhile, China, which has been acting with increasing regional and global assertiveness in recent years, has lost the Korean street.

China’s brand image has been blackened by issues that range from violent fishing confrontations to severe economic/cultural retaliation following the establishment of a US anti-missile battery on Korean soil to furious online disputes – disputes that have even impacted superstar boy band BTS.

Just days prior to Yi’s visit, a Chinese cinematic blockbuster was yanked from screening after a public uproar, and polls find that Koreans now dislike China more than customary whipping boy Japan.

For Beijing, there is much to play for.

The US presence in, alliance with, and influence over democracies Japan and South Korea has long loomed over China’s eastern flank. While the two economic powerhouses are similarly reliant upon China for trade, Tokyo has, in recent years, increasingly leaned toward the United States. Japan’s ruling party is promoting wider military links with distant democratic partners and agitating for a tougher stance on Taiwan.

Thus far, Seoul has been more reticent than Tokyo. After all, beyond commercial ties Seoul needs Beijing to support its policymaking toward North Korea.

While South Korea’s future posture will primarily depend upon who wins the presidential Blue House next March, in the meantime it is in Beijing’s interest to keep Seoul as on-side as possible.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 20, 2019. Seoul needs Beijing on side in its policies toward Pyongyang. Photo: AFP / Xinhua

Trade and tourism follow the money

For decades, South Koreans saw China as an enemy that had prevented a US-led reunification of the peninsula. In October 1950, US-led UN forces, having defeated Kim Il Sung’s invasion of the South, counter-invaded the North, routing Kim’s battered forces. The end seemed near.

Beijing’s response was an undeclared, shock intervention that drove US-led forces south in a harrowing retreat. The drama ensured the survival of the North Korean state and set in stone the continued division of the peninsula.  

Things changed after the earth-shaking collapse of East European communism. Having successfully hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics, a newly democratized Seoul leveraged its Games contacts to establish relations with countries beyond the fallen iron curtain. Beijing and Seoul exchanged ambassadors in 1992.

South Koreans could at last visit the ancient source much of their own culture – agriculture, religions, social systems, medicine, literature and more. Tourism boomed. So did demand for Chinese-language lessons. Meanwhile, the two countries enthusiastically bashed Japan for its imperialist aggressions. 

On the economic front, as the “workshop of the world” revved up and geographic proximity took effect, China-Korea trade surged. In 2003, according to World Bank data, China replaced the United States as the country’s leading destination for exports; In 2007, China replaced Japan as the leading source of Korea’s imports.

Today China is, far and away, South Korea’s most critical trade partner.

In 2020, according to research site Trading Economics, China was the number one destination for South Korea exports, taking up 27%, worth $132.5 billion. The US was a distant second, with 15% (74.4 billion) with Vietnam in third place with 9.8% ($48.5 billion Adding to the Mainland’s heft, the number four spot was held by China’s Hong Kong, with 6.2% ($30.6 billion).

Imports follow a similar pattern. China is responsible for 24% (worth $108 billion) of South Korea’s imports, followed by the US with 13% ($57.7 billion) and Japan in third place, with 10% ($46 billion).

Beyond economics, an important political matter links the two countries. China is the only significant trade partner and investor in North Korea, making the latter hugely dependent upon the former. When it comes to Seoul’s policy toward Pyongyang, Chinese support is critical.

However, not all is amicable. China has also put its foot down on South Korea.

The city of Shanghai is a poster child of China’s surging economy – an economy with a powerful hunger for Korean imports. Photo: Asia Times

‘Big Brother’ flexes its muscles

In the 2000s, clashes between Chinese fishermen and Korean coast guards led to fatalities on both sides in disputed Yellow Sea fishing grounds. In 2013, China unilaterally established an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over Iedo Reef, which Korea claims as national territory.

In 2016, China was infuriated after US troops set up a THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile battery on Korean soil. Though the system was deployed against North Korean missiles, Beijing insisted the radar could snoop on its own territory.

Beijing retaliated in the commercial sphere. Chinese tour groups to Korea dried up, bans were placed on imports of Hallyu (the “Korean Wave” of pop culture – notably, pop music, TV dramas, films and online games), and Korean companies in China were hard hit.

Hyundai suffered a more than 50% sales plunge in China, while Lotte Group was forced to close its retail operations in the country. The absence of Chinese tourists cost $6.5 billion in lost revenue; the spat knocked 0.4 percentage points off Korea’s economic growth.

In damage control mode in 2017, Moon offered Xi the “Three Nos:” Korea would deploy no more THAAD batteries, would not join a broader US missile defense system and would not join any formal trilateral alliance with Japan and the US.

Those conditions raised multiple eyebrows in Washington, but did not entirely defuse Chinese sanctions.

This US Department of Defense/Missile Defense Agency handout photo shows two THAAD interceptors and a Standard-Missile 3 Block IA missile being launched. Photo: AFP/ DoD / Missile Defense Agency

Culture wars

To this day, there are no performances of K-pop in China, Seoul’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism told Asia Times. Likewise, no Korean film has been screened in China since 2015, and no Korean drama has played on Chinese TV since 2017.

The most lucrative, albeit lowest-profile aspect of Hallyu, the online games, suffered massively: Only three Korean games have been permitted to enter the Chinese market since the THAAD issue blew up.

Still, South Korea has some leverage – and it appears to have applied it.

Last year, after Washington placed restrictions on the export of advanced system semiconductors to China, Korea’s Samsung, the number-two player in the foundry space after Taiwan’s TSMC, toed the US line. The resultant lack of high-end chipsets has cast a dark cloud over the future of Huawei, China’s electronics flagship.

Moreover, Samsung has this year announced a massive expansion of its foundry capacity in the US.

In recent days, new controversy has arisen over Hallyu, after Beijing lambasted so-called “sissy boy” entertainers – referencing the androgynous look favored by many K-pop boy bands – and cracked down on what it considers unhealthy fan culture.

Amid Korean concerns that these steps were aimed specifically at K-pop, Beijing’s embassy in Seoul and Seoul’s embassy in Beijing issued statements making clear that it was a blanket policy, not aimed at any specific nationality.

Even so, social media sites set up by Chinese fans of bands including BTS have reportedly been shut down, further withering Hallyu’s shrunken presence in China. A spokesperson for Seoul’s Culture Ministry told Asia Times it was “keenly paying attention on measures taken.”

While Chinese media exports are not nearly as competitive as those of South Korea, Seoul has recently hit back.

Just days before Wang’s visit, a Chinese film set during the Korean War, The Sacrifice, was withdrawn from nationwide distribution after a public uproar. Though Britons and Americans may now watch German or Japanese war films with some equanimity, The Sacrifice, which promoted the heroism of Chinese military “volunteers,” proved a bridge too far for Korean audiences.

Its license was withdrawn on September 14.

Nationalism is not restricted to the policy level. With Beijing apparently gearing up its society and economy for long-term confrontation with the US, related emotion among its citizenry has spilled over.

The uncrowned kings of Hallyu – who have never played a gig in China – ignited a storm of online anger from Chinese last year when BTS member RM referred to the Korean War alliance between Seoul and Washington. As a result, ads in China featuring BTS were withdrawn.

Angry debates over China’s crackdown on Hong Kong, and even scuffles, were reported last year between Korean and Chinese students on Korean campuses. Netizens have clashed furiously online in insult-laden historical and cultural debates – such as whether an ancient kingdom, Goguryeo, which fell in 668 AD, was Chinese or Korean, or whether or not kimchi may be of Chinese origin.

Such issues may strike outsiders as frivolous. But they are adding to a very real pool of ill will.

A 2020 Pew Research Center poll of 14 nations’ attitudes, “Unfavorable views of China reach historic highs in many countries” found that 75% of South Koreans held negative views toward China. Korea was the sixth-ranking country on the list (ahead of the US, seventh).

A domestic June 2021 poll by Hankook Research concurred with Pew’s 2020 findings almost exactly: It found that just 26% of South Koreans had warm feelings toward China.

Remarkably, China’s score was worse than that of the traditional bete noire: In a country where anti-Japanese sentiment is a pillar of nationalism, 28% of South Koreans had positive feelings toward Japan. In another blow to Beijing, the poll found that 58% of Koreans were pro-US.

BTS, Korea’s top act and arguably the leading pop act on earth, have never played in China. They have, however, been entangled in emotive China-Korea political disputes. Photo: AFP

Public sentiment, national interest

However, even if South Korean politicians – as in the case of The Sacrifice – must cleave to public opinion, it is not clear whether the growing unpopularity of China will impact policy.

And when it comes to “public sentiment,” one expert warns that observers must not overlook “national interest.”

“Most Koreans have bad sentiment toward China because of the mass media environment, which has been taking an anti-China stance in line with US mass media,” said Moon Chung-in, chairman of think tank the Sejong Institute. “But South Koreans talk about trade – that is in our interest – and I think a majority of South Koreans will say that military intervention in the South China Sea or in the Taiwan Strait is not in our interest.”

“Government and business are being pulled in two directions, because government is extremely sensitive to public sentiment,” added Michael Breen, Seoul-based author of The New Koreans. “However, government understands that its mission in life is to keep the economy improving. And with China as the biggest trade partner, it will make every effort to keep the trade relationship.”

Yet in the decoupling era, even the successful trade relationship carries risk.

“There is the issue of diversification: I don’t think anyone would want to put 25% of their business into one customer or supplier,” said James Kim, who heads the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea. “I think the THAAD situation created a lot of memories.”

The challenge for the next Seoul government and its diplomatic corps is “to maneuver as skillfully as possible, so as not to offend China,” Breen said.

He forecast that no South Korean administration will follow the example of Canada – which is holding the daughter of Huawei chief Ren Zhengfei pending an extradition request from the United States – or Australia, which has demanded full transparency from China on the outbreak of Covid-19.

“They won’t do what the Canadians and Australians did, which pissed off China, with the result that citizens were arrested and contracts ripped up,” Breen said.

Tokyo has been less assertive than Ottawa or Canberra, but is a member of the US-led, semi-official Indo-Pacific “Quad” alliance, and has raised its voice.

Yet, so sensitive is South Korea’s geopolitical position that it is unlikely even to follow Tokyo’s stance, given its position as one state on a divided peninsula.

“It is very difficult for Korea to move in that direction, as South Korea has North Korea,” Moon said. “Japan does not.”

Pushing China away could encourage Beijing to align itself more closely with its 1950 Korean War ally.

“China has not been supporting North Korea in terms of weapons or logistics since it withdrew troops from North Korea in 1958,” Moon said. “If there were strengthened military ties between Beijing and North Korea, South Korea would face an enhanced threat.”

Millennial South Korea faces multiple challenges: Demographic plunge; socio-political conflicts between genders and generations; massive household debt; and the ever-constant background threat of North Korea.

But Moon, who has advised three separate South Korean presidents, considers the risks posed by intensifying China-US rivalry – and the possibility that Seoul be forced to make an “either-or” choice – the most serious threat.

“We should maintain our alliance with the US, and also cooperative, strategic ties with China,” said Moon, who pleads for China-US rapprochement. “In terms of priorities, the US comes first – but we cannot give up China for the US! That is our existential dilemma.”

For millennia, Korean culture – from architecture to attire – was influenced by China. In 21st century politics, too, it is extremely difficult for Korea to move out from under China’s shadow. Photo: Tom Coyner