Modern Diplomacy
China-South Korea: A Political Scandal in Seoul

The recent years’ developments have led to the fact that in the imagination of the South Koreans, the cute clumsy panda has suddenly begun to acquire the features of a formidable tiger. This has begun to cause tension not only among the South Korean political class, but also in South Korean society. Even if China was not respected, it was definitely feared, writes Valdai Club expert Andrei Lankov.

For several weeks now, a political scandal has been raging in South Korea, which (unusually) is related to foreign policy issues. The reason for the scandal was an event that took place on June 8 at the residence of the Chinese ambassador in Seoul. On that day, Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung met with Chinese Ambassador Xing Haiming there. Their conversation was video-recorded and posted on YouTube.

After exchanging greetings, Xing Haiming read a prepared statement to Lee Jae-myung, which was highly critical of South Korea’s China policy. It said that South Korea was following in the wake of the United States, and that it “bet that China would be defeated in the US-China rivalry.” After that, the ambassador (twice) said that those in the Seoul elite who bet on the defeat of China will regret it. He also said that Korea should respect China’s “basic interests”, including its position on the Taiwan issue.

The appearance of a video recording of the conversation in the public domain led to a scandal. Representatives of the ruling conservative People Power Party said that the Chinese ambassador had committed an act of brazen interference in the affairs of South Korea, and demanded that Ambassador Xing Haiming be declared persona non grata. However, opposition supporters are also annoyed by the very text of the statement, the mentoring tone, and the ambassador’s behaviour in general.

Xing Haiming is known as one of the notorious “wolf warriors” of Chinese diplomacy — hardliners who tend to turn diplomacy into a kind of show designed for the Chinese public, the main purpose of which is to demonstrate Chinese toughness and intransigence. However, so far the ambassador’s militancy has only led to a growing crisis in South Korean-Chinese relations.

The Republic of Korea only formally recognized the PRC in August 1992. The late establishment of diplomatic relations was followed by a period of rapid development of economic, political and cultural ties. Trade grew at a rapid pace, so that now the PRC and Hong Kong account for approximately 30% of all South Korean trade. A large number of Chinese guest workers have appeared in South Korea (at the moment there are more than a million of them in the country, that is, 2% of the total population). In turn, many Koreans have travelled to China — as students, businessmen, missionaries, and employees of numerous joint ventures.

Until 2016, the attitude towards China in Korea was positive. Perhaps few of China’s neighbours then treated Beijing so calmly, not worrying about the rapid growth of Chinese economic and military power.

The situation, however, changed dramatically in 2016-17. The turning point was the crisis caused by South Korea’s decision to host a battery of the American THAAD missile defence system on its territory. This decision was a reaction to the successes of the North Korean ballistic missile programme, but it caused considerable discontent in China.

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There were two reasons for the dissatisfaction. First, China, with its very limited nuclear arsenal, is not happy about the appearance of American missile defence systems on its borders, which largely reduce the efficiency of Chinese nuclear weapons as a deterrent. Second (and, apparently, most importantly), the Chinese side was worried about the radars included in the THAAD system. These radars made it possible to track aircraft and other objects deep into Chinese airspace.

Attempts to reach an agreement did not lead to anything — the Koreans, worried about the success of the North Korean missile programme, believed that the deployment of American missile defence systems, by definition, was purely defensive. The Chinese, however, saw the situation quite differently. The result was the imposition of unilateral sanctions by China against South Korea.

At the same time, Chinese sanctions were introduced in a form that the Koreans had not previously encountered and which they perceived as “dishonest” from the very beginning. No official statements on sanctions by the Chinese side were made. Instead, Chinese regulatory authorities (fire departments, sanitary inspection, tax administration, etc.) began to carry out total inspections of South Korean companies operating in China. Of course, violations were found, which led to the closure of firms or to the imposition of huge fines on them. Particularly affected were the enterprises belonging to the Japanese-South Korean concern Lotte, which allocated the land plots on which that very controversial missile defence battery was placed. Chinese firms stopped sending tourist groups to South Korea, and Chinese television drastically cut back South Korean dramas and performances by entertainers. These measures were taken without official statements, in accordance with the instructions that Chinese firms and organisations received from the Chinese authorities behind closed doors.

All this caused a sharp deterioration in attitudes towards China in South Korea. However, it seems that the entire crisis of 2016-17 was not a cause, but an excuse, because suspicion towards China had been growing in South Korea for a long time.

Since the late 19th century, South Koreans generally lived better than the Chinese, and tended to look down on their neighbours. The Koreans perceived China as a country that undoubtedly had a great history and an interesting culture (the influence of classical Chinese culture on Korea cannot be understated), but which became the embodiment of chaos, corruption and inefficiency. After the start of the Chinese economic miracle, attitudes towards China became more positive, but even today, South Koreans look down on their giant neighbour — even if they do not admit it (however, the Chinese treat them the same way).

The recent years’ developments have led to the fact that in the imagination of the South Koreans, the cute clumsy panda has suddenly begun to acquire the features of a formidable tiger.

This has begun to cause tension not only among the South Korean political class, but also in South Korean society. Even if China was not respected, it was definitely feared.

The American factor also played a significant role. South Korea has always been a close ally of the US, but with North Korean missile and nuclear capabilities growing at an impressive rate, the desire to seek Uncle Sam’s protection in South Korea grows stronger every year. Over the past decade, the anti-American sentiments that were widespread among some South Korean intellectuals a couple of decades ago have practically disappeared. There is a consensus in the country that South Korea should be guided by the United States and try to be as reliable an American ally as possible. In the context of the growing US-China conflict, this focus on the United States has inevitably led to a deterioration in relations with China. In addition, the US government has been putting a lot of pressure on Seoul lately to encourage South Korean companies to reduce their high-tech cooperation with China.

The fact that both countries are largely nationalistic states also plays a role in the growing South Korean-Chinese contradictions. In particular, considerable indignation in Korea is caused by periodic statements by Chinese official historians that the principality of Goguryeo, which at the beginning of our era existed on the territory of Manchuria and the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, was “one of the ancient Chinese states.” From the point of view of the Koreans, Goguryeo is certainly a Korean state and any denial of this fact causes righteous anger in Seoul. It is clear that serious historians, in principle, do not argue about the nationality of the states that existed one and a half thousand years ago (not to mention the uncomfortable fact that the surviving Goguryeo words and phrases clearly show that at least part of the population of this state spoke a language that was a very close relative of Old Japanese).

Another example of such a historical and cultural dispute was the battle for pickled cabbage. The Chinese government is seeking to register a type of spicy fermented cabbage as a national dish; unfortunately it bears a strong resemblance to Korean kimchi. The result was a very heated debate.

Polls have shown that China has recently displaced Japan from the top spot in the list of countries to which South Koreans feel antipathy. In 2002, 31% of South Koreans declared their negative attitude towards China, and in 2022 — 80%. At the same time, anti-Chinese sentiments are characteristic of both political camps, although, perhaps, the right-wing conservative bloc, known for its pro-American sympathies, has a more negative attitude towards China.

It is clear that politics is determined not so much by people’s feelings as by objective political interests. However, South Korea appears to be turning into a country characterised by anti-Chinese sentiment. This circumstance is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, no matter what Ambassador Xing Haiming and his colleagues say.

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Andrei Lankov
There are few doubts that Eastern Asia’s future will largely depend on how its countries will build their relations with China, the new regional leader. Of course, in practice, as is often the case, these relations will largely be determined by specific and unpredictable political and economic circumstances.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.