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Post-Olympic Hangover: New Backdrop for Sino-Korean Relations

October 29, 2008

By Scott Snyder

The XXIX Beijing Olympiad, an event that had preoccupied Chinese leaders for almost a decade as they sought to utilize the games to project to domestic and international audiences China’s accomplishments on an international stage, has framed many issues in Sino-Korean relations, especially given the many resonances between the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and the Beijing Olympics two decades later. But now that the Olympics are over, Chinese leaders may adopt a different frame for viewing the world and the Korean peninsula, the details of which have begun to emerge in the “post-Olympics era.”

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak was among the many world leaders who attended the opening ceremonies, while Hu Jintao made Seoul his first overseas destination, arriving in Seoul less than a day after the Olympic closing ceremonies in Beijing. In contrast, Kim Jong Il was a no-show not only for the Olympics, but also for the 60th anniversary commemoration of the founding of the DPRK on September 9th, as rumors continue to swirl regarding his health. Given that China and South Korea are “strategic cooperative partners,” how is Chinese foreign policy adjusting now that China is no longer preoccupied with maintaining stability for the Olympic games?

South Korea has drawn greater diplomatic attention from Beijing with the election of Lee Myung Bak as South Korea’s president. Even prior to Lee Myung Bak’s inauguration, the two sides exchanged special envoys, with China pushing hard to upgrade the relationship to the status of a “strategic cooperative partnership” during Lee Myung Bak’s first visit to Beijing as South Korea’s president in May. Thus far, the most significant implication of such a partnership has been an intensification of the frequency of bilateral top-level meetings in recent months. Chinese and South Korean leaders met on the sidelines of the G-8 meeting in Hokkaido in early July, on the occasion of the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, and Hu Jintao made Seoul his first stop following the Olympic closing ceremonies. The intensified frequency of top-level bilateral contacts is not yet matched by tangible diplomatic accomplishments, but the seeds of new developments are visible.

The vibrant economic relationship and expanded grassroots interactions (four million Koreans visited China and two million Chinese visited Korea last year) continue to justify closer political ties. During Hu’s visit to Seoul, several economic accords were signed and Lee expressed interest on behalf of South Korea in strengthening investment in the energy, communications, finance and logistics areas, and sought South Korean participation in China’s plans to expand nuclear plant construction. In addition to trade and investment promotion efforts, cooperation accords covered areas including energy conservation, prevention of desertification, and expanded educational cooperation. The bilateral trade relationship continues to grow at double-digit rates, and South Korean investment remains strong. The two leaders pledged to “actively consider” negotiation of a bilateral free trade agreement.

Despite an obvious effort to promote closer top-level leadership ties, ordinary South Koreans were taken aback at Chinese anti-Korean expressions during the Olympic games, especially after having watched a “Korean wave” of cultural exports to China gain widespread popularity. These expressions are evidence of the growing influence of the internet and its ability to feed emotional nationalism. This round of anti-Korean sentiment began back in April following the Olympic torch rally in Seoul. At that time, South Korean emotions were aroused when Chinese students attending the late April torch relay in Seoul physically confronted anti-Chinese protesters (over Tibet or rights of North Korean refugees). These expressions created a minor firestorm of reaction among South Koreans. It also generated a backlash fueled by false internet rumors in China that the South Korean government had prosecuted and sentenced a Chinese protestor to a ten-year jail sentence. These false rumors stimulated a vituperative reaction in China.

In the real world, some Chinese have pointed out an “ugly Korean” image that has spread as South Korean presence has expanded within China. A tendency among South Korean expatriates (rapidly growing communities of Korean students, retirees, or businessmen) to cluster together in certain neighborhoods, behave arrogantly, and the effects of noisy or indiscreet South Korean night-life has extended this image to major cities in China. Some Korean businessmen have left a negative impression for talking big about investment plans, but subsequently failing to deliver on their promises. Many ethnic Koreans (Joseonjok) who have come to South Korea for economic reasons face different types of discrimination and return to China with a negative feeling about South Korea. The increasing number of Chinese overseas student experiences in South Korea has deepened first-hand experience among with Korean negative stereotypes regarding Chinese people.

For South Koreans, a major factor shaping images of China is related to product and consumer safety and quality. Chinese-made goods have developed a reputation for poor quality in South Korea. China’s domestic tainted milk-powder scandal also had reverberations in South Korea and led to the recall of six different Chinese-made products, but this is not a new problem for Koreans, given chronic ongoing difficulties with Chinese food imports since at least 2004. The scandal has stimulated a push in South Korea for more stringent product labeling requirements detailing the point of origin for goods sold in the South Korean market.

Despite the somewhat surprising and inevitable emergence of mixed and more realistic public perceptions on both sides of the relationship, cultural and economic developments continue to drive opportunities for closer interaction between China and South Korea. The two governments pledged to further promote tourism between China and South Korea in anticipation of the World Expos to be held in 2010 in Shanghai Expo and in 2012 at Yeosu (South Korea). A Chinese actress, Yin You Can, was cast as the lead in a Korean musical, “Failan,” currently playing in Seoul’s main theater district in Hyehwa-dong. Korean entertainment companies such as JYP Entertainment are turning to China to seek aspiring new next generation pop stars. Elementary schools in South Korea’s Kangnam district are reintroducing a requirement to learn at least 900 Chinese characters as part of its primary school curriculum. China has agreed for the first time to send the destroyer Harbin to an international fleet review to be held in Busan in October. And the Red Cross Society of China recognized LG, Samsung, and SK for their contributions to victims of the Sichuan earthquake, the only non-Chinese companies other than General Electric to be recognized for their efforts.

The contours of Chinese foreign policy may be shifting now that the Olympics are over. Both unprecedented domestic challenges and new foreign policy challenges will face China’s leadership as it looks to the future. The prospect of a North Korean leadership transition and the importance of an effective Sino-South Korean relationship as one component of China’s strategy in Northeast Asia are unlikely to be underestimated. A major challenge for China in this context will be to manage policies toward North Korea without inciting suspicions on the part of South Koreans that China is “encroaching” on the peninsula to gain strategic advantage. Whether events in North Korea might promote convergence or divergence between China and South Korea in the longer term remains to be seen.

The bloom is off the rose in terms of Sino-South Korean images of each other. Given the intensity of economic interdependence between China and South Korea, these ties deserve more frequent and intense top-level attention. The Sino-South Korean economic relationship has had a remarkable growth spurt, but must now develop the political basis for a mature, sustained interaction. Thus far, such developments have not conflicted with South Korea’s own political perceptions or regional security objectives. The rise of anti-Korean expressions in China suggests that an emerging future task will be the effective management of the political effects of rising nationalism in both countries.

Scott Snyder is a Senior Associate at The Asia Foundation and can be reached at [email protected]. A more complete version of this article was originally published by CSIS.

Related locations: China, Korea
Related topics: Center for U.S.-Korea Policy, North Korea

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