SEOUL — The list of electoral issues that will shape South Korea’s presidential race next year is long. The runaway house prices, the pandemic, North Korea and gender inequality are a start. But in recent weeks, an unlikely addition has also surfaced: China.
South Korea’s decision to allow the US military to place a powerful anti-missile radar system on its territory in 2017 has been the subject of frequent criticism from China. And last month, a presidential hopeful, Yoon Seok-youl, told the country to stop complaining unless it wanted to remove its own radar systems near the Korean peninsula.
The political elites here are usually careful not to antagonize China, the country’s largest trading partner. But Mr Yoon’s blunt rhetoric reflected a new phenomenon: a growing antipathy to Beijing among South Koreans, especially young voters eager to win over conservative politicians.
Anti-Chinese sentiment has grown so much this year that China has replaced Japan — the former colonial ruler — as the most unfavorable country in South Korea, according to a joint survey by polling agency Hankook Research and Korean news magazine SisaIN. . In the same survey, South Koreans said they preferred the United States over China six to one.
More than 58 percent of 1,000 respondents called China “close to evil,” while only 4.5 percent said it was “close to good.”
Negative views on China have also deepened in other advanced countries, but of the 14 countries surveyed by Pew Research Center last year, South Korea was the only one where younger people had a more unfavorable view of China than previous generations.
“Until now, hating Japan has been such a part of Korean national identity that we have a common saying: You know you’re a real Korean if you don’t hate Japan for any specific reason,” says Jeong Han- wool, a principal analyst. at Hankook Research. “In our study, people in their 40s and older still disliked Japan more than they did China. But those in their twenties and thirties, the generation that South Korea will lead in the coming decades, have tipped the scales against China.”
South Korea will elect its next president in March and observers are closely watching how young people vote on the country’s policies towards Beijing.
Conservatives in South Korea have called all but full support for the alliance with Washington “pro-North Korean” and “pro-Chinese.” Progressives usually support reconciliation with North Korea and call for diplomatic “autonomy” between the United States and China. Younger South Koreans have traditionally voted progressive, but millennials are breaking that pattern and may turn into swing voters.
“We feel frustrated to see our government acting backbone while Beijing is acting like a bully,” said Chang Jae-min, a 29-year-old voter in Seoul. “But we also don’t want too much tension with China or North Korea.”
For decades, South Korea has benefited from a military alliance with the United States, while cultivating trade ties with China to boost economic growth. But that balance is increasingly difficult to maintain as relations between Washington and Beijing deteriorate.
President Moon Jae-in’s conservative rivals, such as Mr. Yoon, have complained that South Korea’s ambiguous policies toward the United States and China made it the “weakest link” in the American-led coalition of democracies that face Chinese aggression.
“We cannot remain ambiguous,” Mr Yoon told South Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo last month during an interview in which he made his critical remarks about China.
The conservative opposition has long accused Moon of being “pro-China.” His administration has insisted that South Korea – like other US allies, including those in Europe – must prevent the alienation of both powers. While South Koreans overwhelmingly support the alliance with Washington, the country’s trade with China is almost as large as its trade with the United States, Japan and the European Union combined.
“We cannot take sides,” Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong said.
But when Mr Moon met President Biden in Washington in May, the two leaders stressed the importance of preserving “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” and vowed their alliance to be “a linchpin for regional and global order.” to make. Many analysts saw the statement as a sign that South Korea is more closely aligned with Washington, at the risk of irritating China, which Taiwan has called a red line.
The main conservative opposition, the People Power Party, has already started using the anti-China sentiment of young voters to secure election victories.
In April, young voters helped the party achieve landslide victories in the mayoral races in South Korea’s two largest cities. Last month, the party’s young leader, Lee Jun-seok, 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.
Older Koreans, while often anti-communist, tend to respect Chinese culture, which has influenced the Korean peninsula for millennia. They also view the country as a benign giant whose rapid economic growth has been a boon to South Korean exporters. Younger South Koreans tend not to share that perspective.
Most of them grew up proud of their homegrown economic and cultural successes. And as China’s foreign policy became more assertive under President Xi Jinping, they began to see the country’s authoritarianism as a threat to free society. They have also criticized China’s handling of the coronavirus, expansionism in the South China Sea and the particulate matter pollution from China that regularly covers Seoul.
“They grew up in a liberal environment that the previous generations built up with sweat and blood, so they have an inherent antipathy to illiberal countries,” said Ahn Byong-jin, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. “They rely on politicians who criticize China.”
Nowhere has South Korea’s dilemma between Washington and Beijing been magnified more dramatically than by the deployment of the US anti-missile radar known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD.
When South Korean officials agreed to the deployment, they called it a necessity in defense against North Korea. Seeing it as part of an ongoing threat from the US military presence in the region, China retaliated by curbing tourism to South Korea and boycotting the country’s cars, smartphones, shopping malls and TV shows.
Ha Nam-suk, a professor of Chinese politics and economics at Seoul University, has been monitoring how hostility towards Beijing has developed on and off campus in recent years as money-stressed South Korean universities began to host more and more Chinese students. accept.
South Korean and Chinese students clashed over whether or not to support young pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, he said. They’ve also gotten into a fight online about K-pop and Kimchi. In March, many young South Koreans forced a TV station to cancel a drama series after an old Korean king dined on Chinese dumplings.
“As they looked at what China was doing in places like Hong Kong,” Mr. Ha said, “the Koreans began to wonder what it would be like to live under a greater atmosphere of Chinese influence.”