Features | Politics | East Asia

The Politics of South Korea’s ‘China Threat’

Amid growing anti-Chinese sentiment in South Korea, there is a mismatch between the popular will and Seoul’s foreign policy.

The Politics of South Korea’s ‘China Threat’

Protesters tear a Chinese national flag during a rally to oppose a planned visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi near the Chinese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

In an unprecedented turn of events, the consortium behind the production of “Joseon Exorcist,” a highly anticipated Korean historical drama featuring zombies, announced the cancellation of the show after airing its second episode on March 23. The production team had been beset with the accusations that it was “distorting” history by presenting Korean culture through “Chinese” aesthetics. Sponsors of the show quickly pulled out, leading to the complete scrapping of the $28 million series. The hasty cancellation of the series underscores a very strong undercurrent of anti-Chinese sentiments in the country, which could turn South Korea’s China policy into a wedge issue in its hyper-partisan political landscape.

The Korea-China Drama

The cancellation of “Joseon Exorcist” does not come out of the blue, nor has it been the only case. Other ongoing Korean dramas such as “True Beauty” and “Vincenzo” have come under fire for product placement of Chinese brands like JD.com or a Chinese brand of bibimbap. South Korean entertainment has become popular abroad, and it is no secret that there is significant Chinese capital behind many mega-productions. However, the pushback in South Korea has become more intense recently.

A more immediate explanation for this trend is China’s recent alleged “cultural imperialism.” Since last year, the South Korean media has started to report incidents of China’s cultural appropriation – an attempt to label traditional Korean clothing hanbok as a type of Chinese hanfu, or spats over the origins of kimchi. Further, it was discovered that Chinese search engines were listing Korean historical figures or national heroes such as King Sejong, Yun Dong-ju, or Kim Yuna as “chaoxianzu,” (joseonjok in Korean) referring to the Korean Chinese minority group living in Northeast China.

For Koreans, these controversies are seen a continuation of the “Northeast Project” from the early 2000s, in which Chinese academics sought to find archaeological evidence to buttress the claims of China as a perennial multiethnic state that included the ethnic Korean people. The labelling of Korean cultural heritage under the Sinic umbrella provoked a nationwide outrage in South Korea and raised concerns that this might be a reflection of a newly emerging colonial attitude on the part of the Chinese. However, there is more to the story.

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The Rise of Anti-Chinese Sentiments

The South Korean backlash against China’s cultural encroachments must be understood as a manifestation of deep-seated anti-Chinese sentiments that has built up over the past few years. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of South Koreans with negative sentiments toward China has reached all-time high, jumping from 31 percent in 2002 to 75 percent in 2020, while the percentage of those with positive sentiments took a dive from 66 percent to 24 percent during the same period. Obviously, the COVID-19 outbreak and Beijing’s so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy” have been key factors souring perception in South Korea, like in the rest of the world, but there are more deeply seated issues at play in the South Korean context.

South Koreans have experienced and vividly remember the economic retaliation orchestrated by Beijing in response to the agreement to install the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system at the request of the United States in 2016. In a classic “shrimp between the whales” moment, South Korea suffered at least $7.5 billion of economic losses when Beijing imposed unofficial – but by no means ineffective – sanctions on Korean products, from tourism to entertainment. The rise of anti-Korean vandalism and assault in China, which followed cues from state media, made it difficult for South Koreans to separate Beijing from the Chinese people. This was a watershed moment in which many South Koreans came to experience first-hand the implications of dependence on a more assertive and activist China.

The cognitive framework of South Koreans toward China that emerged during the THAAD crisis has remained in place despite the normalization of relations between Beijing and Seoul in 2017. Recent revelations of human rights abuse in Xinjiang and the crackdown on civil society activism in Hong Kong have further reinforced this perception of China among South Koreans. The pandemic and the increasingly aggressive rhetoric from China’s diplomats contributed to this trend as well.

A Policy Mismatch

However, there is a mismatch between this strong anti-China sentiment in the public and South Korea’s current foreign policy. This, combined with external environments that make the policy of “strategic ambiguity” vis-à-vis China and the United States increasingly difficult and the hyper-partisan, polarized political landscape, could altogether transform China policy into a key wedge issue in South Korea’s politics in the coming years.

Following the THAAD debacle, Seoul has been careful to not provoke Beijing again. Also, seeking a closer relationship with Beijing has been aligned with President Moon Jae-in’s agenda of lessening dependence on the U.S. to derive more agency for Seoul’s North Korea policy, as well as the political ideology of the South Korean progressives that elected him. In this, Moon has consistently made overtures to collaborate with China, and he has been working to organize President Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul this spring.

The Moon administration has been extra careful in navigating its relations with Beijing. It has not banned the procurement of Huawei’s 5G network equipment by LG U+, one of the three telecoms in the country, despite calls to do so from Washington. And South Korea remains one of the few democracies that has not expressed support for the rights and freedoms of the protesters in Hong Kong.

More recently, South Korea did not endorse Canada’s Declaration Against Detention in State-to-State Relations, an initiative that seeks to pressure Beijing to release the two detained Canadians. The declaration was supported by 57 countries, including most of the key democracies. Likewise, South Koreans were not present when diplomats in Beijing gathered in front of the courthouse to show support for the Canadians. Thus far, Seoul has been silent about the possibility of sanctions against China for human rights violations in Xinjiang as well.

Then, considering the strong anti-Chinese sentiment in South Korea, there is a mismatch between the popular will and Seoul’s foreign policy today. South Koreans have become increasingly critical of the Moon administration’s approach to China, which many regard as unnecessarily deferential or even humiliating.

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The external environment has also made it increasingly difficult for Seoul to maintain the policy of strategic ambiguity between China and the United States. On the North Korea front, the Moon administration has not made any tangible progress since the 2019 Hanoi summit fell apart. The election of President Joe Biden has not eased the tension between the two superpowers; rather, Washington has been moving to repair and renew its alliances around the world to lead a united front against China, from tech to military.

Washington is highly critical of Seoul’s strategic ambiguity and has been demanding more. The CSIS Commission on the Korean Peninsula recommends the abandonment of strategic ambiguity, which creates a “high-cost, low benefits scenario,” and urges Seoul to recommit to the U.S.-South Korea alliance. The Biden administration is also said to be asking Seoul to contribute more actively to the Quad initiative in the Indo-Pacific.

There are growing concerns about being isolated on the international stage while attempting to maintain strategic ambiguity. Seoul’s silence on key human rights issues – especially given Moon’s career as a human rights lawyer – has been noted, and experts have warned that South Korea’s absence from alliance activities may completely cede policy leadership in the region to others, especially Tokyo. There are also concerns that key, sensitive South Korean sectors such as semiconductors and batteries might suffer if Seoul remains locked out of the alliance and stuck in the middle between Beijing and the liberal democracies.

In this context, China policy has become a wedge issue, which will, unfortunately, further limit the policy latitude for Seoul, regardless of who comes to power. South Korea’s political landscape has become extremely polarized, with the public split on all issues – social, economic, and foreign affairs – along party lines. According to a government survey in 2019, 91.8 percent of South Koreans indicated that they believe that there is a conflict between progressives and conservatives, a drastic jump from 70.2 percent in 2006.

Politicizing China

Cold War rhetoric remains influential in South Korea due to its history (i.e., the fight against North Korea and Seoul’s anti-Communist operations) and it further reinforces the historical, partisan divide between pro-U.S. conservatives and anti-U.S. progressives. Now, the difference is that the focal point is not North Korea, but China. The Cold War language of the “reds” infiltrating free societies and plotting their overthrow from within can easily be identified in today’s conservative rhetoric about China. Common themes include China’s political influence on leftist elites like Moon or Chinese capital slowly taking over the Korean entertainment industry.

Conservatives have already started to exploit the mismatch between South Korea’s strong anti-Chinese sentiments and Seoul’s passive foreign policy. The outbreak of COVID-19 created an opening for the conservatives to attack the Moon government’s China policy – they blamed the failure to ban flights from China or criticize Beijing’s early responses to the pandemic as a sign of Moon’s policy of extreme deference vis-à-vis China. The allegations of “stolen elections” last year that gained significant ground among conservatives also centered around China’s supposed furtive operations to subvert South Korea’s democracy through the election of progressive politicians.

There are more signs of the mainstream conservatives mobilizing to exploit these anti-China sentiments. The main conservative opposition People Power Party’s (PPP) policy white paper clearly indicates its hawkish stance vis-à-vis Beijing. It calls for stronger reaction against “historical distortions” by China, strengthening of the U.S.-Korea alliance, pushback against Xi Jinping’s glorification of China’s participation in the Korean War, and overall a more “confident” China policy driven by national interest.

With the upcoming by-elections on April 7, conservative politicians and media have even started to politicize the franchise of Chinese residents. Under the current law, foreign residents who have lived in South Korea for more than three years can vote in local elections, and the Chinese Koreans are perceived to be supporters of the Democratic Party.

Oh Se-hoon of the PPP, who is expected to win the Seoul mayor race in the April 7 by-election, attributed his loss to the progressive candidate in last year’s election to the fact that “tens of thousands of Joseonjok live in [the district] … over 90 percent of them vote for the Democratic Party,” a quote that was widely circulated in the national media.

In another instance, Chosun Ilbo, the most circulated newspaper with a conservative bent, reported the Democratic Party’s outreach to Chinese voters under the headline “Franchise for Foreigners: Democratic Party Pleads for Votes from Chinese,” which clearly panders to the underlying current of anti-China sentiments and aims to politicize the voting rights of Chinese residents in South Korea.

“China Threat” and Democratic Values

South Koreans are already eyeing the 2022 presidential election. The current administration, beset with economic troubles and corruption scandals, is increasingly unpopular, with Moon’s approval ratings at 32.2 percent. Moon is already losing his influence in the party, and his lame duck period might have already begun, with attention shifting to the favorites for the 2022 election instead. Until the polls in March 2022, South Koreans will be exposed to debates and campaigns in a highly partisan environment. China policy is likely to remain a key wedge issue.

Conservatives will continue to make their pitches for tougher policies (which may or may not become reality) on China – from protecting the ownership of kimchi to South Korean participation in the U.S.-led initiatives in the Indo-Pacific. The results of the election will be important, but it will also be critical to watch how the calls for tougher policies on China and rise in anti-China sentiments throughout South Korea society affect civil liberties and democratic values. China got blamed for the purported theft of the 2020 South Korean election in a widely spread conspiracy theory, and conservatives have started to politicize the  right of foreign residents to vote. In a highly polarized social and political environment, China could provide the excuse for extreme rhetoric, practices, and policies that go against fundamental liberal values.

There are several parallels to draw between the South Korean case and the different responses to the “China threat” around the world. A key shared element in these is how the frustration with elite politics and existing economic and social problems are getting channeled through these debates on China. More specifically, people hear from the elites that economic engagement with China is important and beneficial, but house prices continue to go up and inequality continues to rise. Ultimately, these responses to the “China threat” underscore the struggle of liberal democracies to identify ways of dealing with an assertive and powerful China that is increasingly more present in their lives.