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International relations

South Koreans sour on China ahead of Wang Yi visit

Growing anti-Beijing sentiment adds wrinkle to already complicated relationship

A man walks past a poster for the movie "Sacrifice," which is about China's entry into the Korean War to fight alongside North Korea against the U.S., in Beijing on October 22, 2020.   © AFP/Jiji

SEOUL -- "The Sacrifice," a Chinese movie, takes place during one of the tensest phases of the Korean War, telling the story of Chinese soldiers working to repair a bridge while under fire from South Korean and U.S. troops.

The movie was a huge hit in China upon its 2020 release, but spurred a far different reaction this week ahead of its planned release on streaming platforms in South Korea. Politicians and netizens expressed anger that the movie was permitted for screening in the country, as it depicts a battle that resulted in thousands of South Korean casualties.

"Does any other country in the world screen movies that show its own military getting annihilated?" ruling party politician Kim Jin-tae asked on Facebook while accusing the film of "beautifying" the killing of South Korean soldiers. Kim called on the government to ban the film, while reiterating the conservative opposition's long-standing claim that the left-leaning administration of President Moon Jae-in has rolled over too easily for China, South Korea's largest trading partner.

On Sept. 8, Culture Minister Hwang Hee said during a session at the National Assembly that the film had been withdrawn and would not hit South Korean screens. Hwang did not specify whether the government or the film's distributors had pulled the plug, but alluded to growing anti-China sentiment in South Korea, particularly among young people.

This growing anti-China sentiment adds a wrinkle to an already complicated relationship, and could cloud meetings on Tuesday in Seoul between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his South Korean counterpart Chung Eui-yong. The two sides are set to discuss issues of shared concern, such as how to bring North Korea back to the table for denuclearization talks.

The furor over the movie follows other recent outbursts of negative feelings toward China. The construction of a massive facility catering to Chinese tourists was called off earlier this year amid public outcry, and "Joseon Exorcist," a television drama, was canceled after South Korean netizens objected to depictions of Korean historical items.

Survey results released in June by Sisain, a current affairs magazine, and pollster Hankook Research indicate a souring of South Korean public opinion toward China, particularly among the young. Only 26% of respondents had warm feelings toward China, compared with 57% who felt warmly toward the U.S. Even Japan, South Korea's traditional rival, came out ahead of China with 28%.

"Dislike of China is arguably emerging as the spirit of our times," Sisain wrote in an accompanying article. "The question 'what kind of country is China to us?' is changing to 'why and how much do we dislike China?"

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left, will meet South Korean counterpart Chung Eui-yong in Seoul on Tuesday. (File photos by Reuters and Getty Images) 

Trepidation toward China, unlike feelings about Japan or the U.S., did not correlate with conservative or progressive political orientation. However, the poll results vary markedly according to age, with only 15% of respondents in their 20s feeling positively toward China, compared with 31% of those in their 60s and older.

As reasons for their discontent, respondents pointed to worsening air pollution in the country which many South Koreans blame on poorly regulated carbon-emitting factories in China, Beijing's slow response in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, and illegal fishing by Chinese vessels in South Korean waters.

China appears keen to bring South Korea, a U.S. ally, further into its sphere of influence, while the Moon administration has attempted to balance relations with Beijing and Washington through an approach dubbed "strategic ambiguity," meaning Seoul has been careful to not appear to decisively take the side of one superpower over the other.

Much of Korean history is characterized by the country facing incursions by more powerful neighbors, and some South Koreans fret over the possibility that China could seek to impose its will.

"Young South Koreans see that China is authoritarian and see how aggressive China has been against the people of Hong Kong and Taiwan," said Joseph Yi, a professor of political science at Hanyang University in Seoul.

"This leads to concerns that private Chinese companies are really acting as a front for their government, that they're starting by claiming Korean culture and will eventually evolve to claiming Korea politically. Because the Chinese government is nontransparent, no one can say that this is 100% untrue," Yi told Nikkei Asia.

For South Korea, a more pressing concern at this week's meeting will be encouraging China to use its influence over North Korea to spur a restart of the flashy diplomacy that took place early in Moon's term. Moon will leave office next year, and faces the possibility of his term expiring without having achieved any durable progress toward peace with North Korea.

"Moon's top priority is to reach some kind of breakthrough in terms of inter-Korean relations, as he wants to keep the legacy of all the exchanges that took place in 2018," Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University, told Nikkei.

"Public opinion has changed lately, so Moon is not actively pursuing relations with China, but he is still eager to get China to use its influence with North Korea."

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