As the March 2022 presidential election approaches in South Korea, the candidates of both ruling and opposing parties are competing over their platforms on various hot-button issues and promoting their prospects as the country’s next president.
One of the biggest questions that the South Korean public has for these candidates concerns the shape of their foreign policy. South Korea’s position in Northeast Asia has experienced turbulence in the past two years. For example, North Korea destroyed the Joint Liaison Office in Panmunjom in June 2020 and terminated the inter-Korean communication line. In addition, South Korea’s disputes with Japan over economic sanctions and historical narratives on the war crimes committed during World War II have complicated cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo. The COVID-19 pandemic has also created a stalemate in regional diplomacy and inter-state economic exchanges. Thus, the South Korean public will want the next president to develop a breakthrough that can resolve the hardships and uncertainties currently surrounding the Korean Peninsula.
However, a recent poll highlighted a major paradigm shift in the trend of South Korean public perception toward surrounding states, which may affect the presidential candidates’ foreign policy pledges. According to the poll by Hankook Research and South Korean online newspaper SisaIn, the South Korean public was least favorable toward of China; even North Korea and Japan were viewed more positively.
The participants were asked to give a favorability score to four countries – China, Japan, North Korea, and the United States – on a scale between 0 and 100. South Koreans gave the most negative rating to China with an average of 26.4, lower than North Korea at 28.6 and Japan at 28.8. The United States had the most favorable rating at 57.3. Furthermore, to the question of whether participants thought a particular country is “good” or “evil,” 58.1 percent labeled China as evil, whereas only 4.5 percent said it was good.
The increasing anti-China sentiment in South Korea is a remarkable trend for Seoul’s foreign policy. Previously, South Korean public opinion focused on North Korea and Japan as the country’s top potential threats. The same poll in late 2019 showed that Japan was the least favorably viewed country among South Koreans, with 21.0 favorability, while China rated 35.6. Although there were issues such as historical disputes centered on the former Korean kingdom Goguryeo and illegal Chinese fishing in South Korean waters, the hatred for China was relatively weak compared to concerns over the North Korean nuclear program and the rise of the far-right movement in Japan.
In the past, China was mainly perceived as a trade partner because of its significant position in South Korea’s economy: China receives about a quarter of South Korea’s total exports. Thus, the Moon administration implemented strategic ambiguity as a major foreign policy amid accelerating China-U.S. competition. While maintaining security engagement with the United States, President Moon Jae-in also attempted to reduce liability risk by staying ambivalent and siding neither with Washington nor Beijing over critical issues that may be sensitive to the economic and diplomatic relations with China. These issues include the democratic movement in Hong Kong, questions over the Taiwan Strait, and human rights issues in Xinjiang. Through these obscure hedging policies, South Korea was able to sustain its economic interests, even if the rise of China provoked security concerns in the Asia-Pacific region.
But the recent anti-China sentiment implies that South Korea is standing at a crossroads in its foreign policy. The next administration will either follow public opinion and implement a hardline policy against China or continue with its strategic ambiguity, despite the risk of public disapproval. The ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), representing the liberal and nationalistic camps, follows the Moon administration’s foreign policy, and appreciates amicable relations with North Korea and China. On the other hand, the opposition People Power Party (PPP), a conservative camp, emphasizes South Korea’s relationship with the United States and aims to strengthen security against the increasing North Korean nuclear threat. Thus, it is more likely that the opposition party will promote anti-China rhetoric as a major foreign policy idea.
The differences between the two parties were made obvious in the statements from their most popular candidates. Lee Jae-myung, governor of Gyeonggi province and the leading presidential candidate for the DPK, is considered to be a pro-China figure. In 2017, Lee pledged to oust the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system during an interview with CCTV, a Chinese state-run television channel, claiming that its deployment damages South Korea’s national interests. Lee also recently promised to inherit Moon’s foreign policy of strategic ambiguity if he ever becomes president.
“The United States is our sole ally, and we also have strategic cooperation with China. There is no reason why we must lean on one side to limit the relations with another,” said Lee. “It is wiser diplomacy to induce the U.S. and China to compete to cooperate with us.”
By contrast, Yoon Seok-youl, former public prosecutor general and the leading presidential candidate for the PPP, has revealed his antipathy toward China. Although Yoon spent most of his career as a prosecutor and has less experience in politics, he criticized the Moon administration’s preventive measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, arguing that the government should have restricted arrivals from China upon the initial outbreak of the disease. Yoon even referred to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus,” a term that is often seen as a racist dog-whistle.
“Since January last year, the Korea Medical Association and medical experts have demanded strong control over the arrivals from China. It is a feasible request if we approach the virus scientifically,” said Yoon. “If they did not follow the science, then there must have been a political consideration.”
The different stance between the two candidates indicates that the South Korean public’s anti-China sentiment may become a factor in determining the next South Korean president. It is therefore necessary to analyze how the backlash against China suddenly started to escalate in South Korea and the potential scenarios that may emerge between now and March 2022.
Anti-China Sentiment in South Korea
Anti-China sentiment in South Korea has been reinforced by four major events: the THAAD deployment in 2017, Beijing’s response to the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, and China’s attempts at “cultural imperialism” in late 2020.
The THAAD deployment in South Korea in February 2017 first sparked friction between Seoul and Beijing. Due to North Korea’s increasing nuclear provocations in 2016, including Pyongyang’s fourth and fifth nuclear test, then-president Park Geun-hye decided to deploy the U.S. missile defense system to detect and destroy any North Korean missile attacks targeting the South. However, the deployment aroused a harsh reaction from Beijing, which sees THAAD as a threat that undermines China’s security and missile weapons systems. Although the South Korean government explained the purpose of the deployment as self-defense against North Korean missile threats, China took assertive action against South Korea.
Qiu Guohong, then the Chinese ambassador to South Korea, said the THAAD deployment could “break up” South Korea’s relationship with China. There were even statements that evoked the tributary system of the premodern era. “Can a small country resist against a big country?” said Chen Hai, then-vice minister of foreign affairs, during his meeting with South Korean companies. “If your government deploys THAAD, we will torment you with severed ties.”
Sure enough, Beijing imposed economic sanctions on South Korea. China’s prohibition of tourists to South Korea has cost roughly 2.1 quadrillion Korean won in the tourism industry alone. In addition, Lotte Group, which provided its golf course for the THAAD deployment site, had to close 87 out of its 99 superstores in China. Korean celebrities were also limited from appearing in Chinese media.
As a result, South Korea had to implement conciliatory gestures to China to avoid further economic damages. Moon, newly inaugurated right after the THAAD deployment in May 2017, pledged a “three noes” policy’ – no additional THAAD deployment, no U.S.-South Korea-Japan military engagement, and no participation in the U.S. missile defense program – to mitigate China’s dissatisfaction. However, these attempts to smooth things over were perceived as “begging” among the South Korean public.
Second, recent events in the region have struck a chord with many South Korean voters. The turbulence in Hong Kong, especially the protests in 2019 and the introduction of the national security law in 2020, sent shockwaves across South Korea. Resonating with their historical traumas from the Gwangju uprising in 1980, many South Koreans were quick to show solidarity with the Hong Kong protesters. This sentiment triggered a spike of wariness about China’s influence in South Korea, as the Hong Kong experience served as a stark reminder of South Korea’s recent experience with military rule.
The Moon administration was largely silent on the Hong Kong issue, for fear of offending the country’s largest trading partner. Despite his prudent tiptoeing, the backlash against encroaching Chinese influence in South Korea has become a political issue in the upcoming election.
Last month, the opposition PPP’s young leader, Lee Jun-seok, aged 36, said his fellow South Korean millennials would fight against Chinese “cruelty” in places like Hong Kong and Xinjiang, where China has been accused of genocide. However, Moon has remained ambiguous on the overall situation in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. While pledging to uphold human rights and freedom, his administration has walked a fine line with China and adopted a softer tone, which critics regarded as too China-friendly.
Third, the COVID-19 pandemic since early 2020 has revealed a growing mistrust of China, since the virus first emerged in Wuhan. Many South Koreans, especially the younger generations, view COVID-19 as another “made-in-China” woe, and see China’s handling of the pandemic as a cover-up. At the same time, many online comments have blamed China as the origin of the virus. Hence, the pandemic has intensified the anti-China sentiment that was already simmering over everything from the THAAD row to Beijing’s friendliness toward North Korea.
Fourth, China’s “cultural imperialism,” or attempts to claim Korean culture as part of China’s history, have rankled many South Koreans. In November 2020, the Chinese online game Shining Nikki received heavy criticism from Chinese netizens for its depiction of hanbok, Korean traditional clothes, as distinctly “Korean” rather than one subset of Chinese traditional clothes, hanfu. Since then, South Koreans have suspected that China is attempting to assert Korean cultural icons as inherently “Chinese.” Kimchi, one of the most well-known Korean dishes, was claimed to be Chinese paocai. Yun Dong-Ju, famous for his poems on self-reflection and Korean identity during the Japanese colonial rule, was introduced as chaoxianzu – an ethnically Korean Chinese national – in the Chinese online portal Baidu because his birthplace, Mingdong village, was located in China’s Jilin province.
A Korean Times article stated that, compared to the traditional suspicion to Japan, China is perceived to be a more imminent threat given the extent to which Beijing’s influence – political, economical, and cultural – can be felt in Koreans’ everyday life. Earlier this year, a fantasy drama set in Korea’s Joseon era attracted criticisms for featuring Chinese-style costumes and food props. Recently, a Chinese war film on the Korean War, which celebrated China’s victory over South Korea and U.N. forces, was pulled from screening after facing an enormous backlash from South Korea. These actions from China were condemned as attempts at “cultural imperialism” against Korean culture.
Furthermore, China’s efforts to engulf Korean culture as “Chinese” was seen in Beijing’s push to assimilate the 2 million ethnic Korean minorities in Manchuria into a broader “Chinese ethnicity.” These policies triggered harsh reactions from South Korea, which presents itself as the representation of Korean culture in the world. Thus, China’s assertions about Korean culture sparked fear and anxiety among South Koreans that China will gradually infiltrate into its society and eventually “Sinicize” Korea. This opposition against China’s subjugation of Korean culture also sparked criticisms of the South Korean government’s economic engagement policy with China. For instance, the plan to construct a “Chinese cultural complex town” in Gangwon province was scrapped in April after much public condemnation.
Hence, the recent surge of anti-China sentiment in South Korea must not be viewed as merely originating from the worldwide backlash against China’s failure to prevent COVID-19. Although the pandemic boosted the South Korean public’s anti-China sentiment, it was not the only factor. In the past few years, China’s assertive attempts to push back the United States’ influence in East Asia and incorporate South Korea into its sphere of influence have created skyrocketing antagonism and opposition among the South Korean people. Anti-China sentiment has become a significant factor that may determine who becomes the next South Korean president.
What are the possible scenarios that may emerge in March 2022? Although North Korea has been the primary security concern for every South Korean administration, perceptions of China as a threat are rising, with 83 percent of South Koreans now viewing China as a threat to their security.
The rise of conservatism among the younger generation is also notable. The incumbent Democratic Party is already in a precarious position. In April, young voters helped deliver landslide victories for the PPP in the mayoral races in South Korea’s two largest cities, Seoul and Busan. The exit poll of the by-election for the mayor of Seoul in April indicated increasing support for PPP among young South Koreans, where 55.3 percent in their 20s and 56.5 percent in their 30s voted for the conservative candidate. In June, Lee Jun-seok was appointed as the PPP’s leader, becoming the youngest ever party leader in South Korean history. These results highlight that many younger voters who previously voted for Moon in droves have turned toward conservatism, as their hopes for a fairer society under the Democratic Party were dashed. The negative sentiment continued today, as the shift in youth support for conservative and China-skeptic candidates will benefit politicians like Lee Jun-seok.
Lee, as a fresh-faced outsider, also serves another purpose as the PPP’s party head. Despite socioeconomic and political differences, the youth are united by shared animosity against the established middle-aged generation, the kkondae, who are perceived as inept and condescending to the younger generation. And the generation gap in ideologies is often acute. For example, while often anti-communist, older Koreans tend to respect Chinese culture, which influenced the Korean Peninsula for millennia. They have also looked upon the country as a benign giant whose rapid economic growth was a boon for South Korean exporters.
Younger South Koreans, on the other hand, tend not to share that perspective. On top of the negative sentiments prompted by Beijing’s reaction to the THAAD deployment, Hong Kong, COVID-19, and cultural imperialism, recent nationalistic moves from China have alienated much of South Korean society, especially the younger generation.
Similar to the 2017 election, youth voters are once again the kingmakers. If the shift to the right continues, the PPP may have a fighting chance at winning the next election. However, Moon’s Democratic Party acknowledges the issue and is bridging this gap by introducing economic policies intended to soothe youth discontent, and public opinion polls are still neck-and-neck. The key now is whether the Democrats have the resolve to address the party’s pro-China image to halt the rightward swing among younger voters.
If Moon’s party does win the election, we can expect a continuation of its ambiguity on China-related issues. In this case, the PPP can further exploit public frustration and weaken the DPK administration. With that, Democrats’ hedging between the United States and China may be hard to continue as both domestic voters and diplomatic stakeholders – especially an increasingly assertive China – may force South Korea to take sides, and it is impossible to appease both.
Meanwhile, a PPP victory will likely see South Korea’s geopolitical and economic stance swinging back to a conservative and pro-U.S. position reminiscent of the former Lee Myung-bak administration. In this scenario, relations with China and North Korea would naturally sour. Beijing’s political and economic pressure would intensify, and incidents like the THAAD row in 2017 may be repeated. The China-skeptic conservative administration would further drive the country toward the U.S.-led alliance and away from Moon’s ambiguity, with greater security cooperation and more forward-leaning comments on human rights-related issues.