Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts America Should Pay Attention to Anti-China Sentiment in South Korea
America Should Pay Attention to Anti-China Sentiment in South Korea

America Should Pay Attention to Anti-China Sentiment in South Korea

Bottom Line

  • Anti-China sentiment appears to be running high in South Korea, with one 2022 survey showing 81 percent of South Korean respondents held negative or very negative views of China.
  • Anti-China attitudes among South Koreans have been building up over time due to diplomatic incidents tied to deeper cultural and societal anxieties, as well as the internet.

South Korea is no stranger to walking the tightrope between the United States and China. In terms of foreign policy, South Korea is determined to remain close to the United States defensively while maintaining its close economic relationship with China. However, in terms of public perception, it is clear that China is not the favorite. In fact, South Koreans have the world’s most negative view of China, according to a 2020–2022 survey of fifty-six countries by the Sinophone Borderlands project.

The Sinophone Borderlands surveys showed 81 percent of South Korean respondents surveyed between April and September 2022 expressed negative or very negative views towards China. These numbers are high, even when compared to the United States and other China-wary US allies and partners in the region. For example, the same survey showed 69 percent of respondents in Japan, 62 percent of respondents in Taiwan, and 57 percent of respondents in India held negative views of China. Meanwhile, a Sinophone Borderlands’ survey of Europe and North America around the same time period (August–October 2022) found that approximately 60 percent of respondents in the United States held negative views of China. Perhaps most notably, according to the Indo-Pacific survey, China is viewed even more negatively in South Korea than Japan, which has a history of tense relations with South Korea due to Japanese colonialism.

Why is anti-China sentiment so high in South Korea? What implications does this issue have for foreign policy? Ultimately, anti-China sentiment in South Korea has been building up over time as a result of diplomatic incidents that relate to deeper cultural and societal anxieties. These negative feelings towards China have been further amplified by the younger generations’ use of the internet.

Causes of Anti-China Sentiment in South Korea

According to an Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security (IFANS) report detailing the history of anti-China sentiment in Korea, “중국에 대한 반감의 표출 자체가 새로운 현상은 아님” or “the expression of antipathy towards China is not a new phenomenon.” Although anti-China sentiment in South Korea has only recently reached high levels, it has been building up over time as a result of diplomatic incidents between South Korea and China.

Though China fought against South Korea and the United States in the latter half of the Korean War, this event did not cause widespread anti-China sentiment. In fact, a research article by Hyun Cho and Seohyun Park in 2011 notes that despite China’s involvement in the Korean War, China mostly remained a distant threat to South Koreans until the 1980s and was even the favorite foreign country compared to Japan in post-war South Korea. IFANS asserts that “[anti-China sentiment in South Korea] is unlikely to be as strong as anti-Japan sentiments…because of the different historical experiences vis-a-vis China and Japan.” Thus, the Cold War is important in this discussion because it shows that unlike anti-Japan sentiment, anti-China sentiment is not based on historical experience. Instead, it is a phenomenon that has built up over time as the result of more recent incidents. In addition, the Cold War established an “us versus them” mentality in South Korea. The idea that South Korea and the United States were partners against communism (not targeted towards but including China) is the foundation that later anti-China sentiment would build on.

The first major incident between South Korea and China that contributed to anti-China sentiment is the Northeast Project (동북공정), an academic plan launched in 2002 by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). The purpose of this project was to prove that northeastern China has always been under Chinese control. However, this caused outrage in Korea because northeast China historically included early Korean kingdoms. As a result, it appeared as though China was attempting to distort history by claiming Korean culture as its own. This highlights how much Koreans value their history and culture. The Northeast Project directly threatened this, and so, it continues to be mentioned online even though the project has long concluded.

The second major incident is the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) dispute between China and South Korea. In 2016, the United States and South Korea released a joint statement announcing plans to deploy the THAAD system to South Korea in response to North Korean ballistic missile testing. Though this system was explicitly stated to be “focused solely on North Korea,” China perceived this move as a serious security threat. As a result, China not only retaliated through diplomatic means, but also through “economic coercion.” This was met with intense backlash from the Korean public, leading to a huge spike in anti-China sentiment online. This backlash was amplified by reports from the Korean media that China was enacting a “Korean Wave Ban” in an attempt to further punish South Korea for its actions. The THAAD dispute (or more accurately, China’s response to the dispute) unearthed anxieties about Korea’s economic dependence on China as well as the importance of the Korean Wave to the economy.

Finally, according to the surveys conducted through the Sinophone Borderlands project, two other important sources of anti-China sentiment in South Korea are COVID-19 and fine dust. While the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the main sources of anti-China sentiment worldwide, fine dust is a problem that is significant to South Koreans. Fine dust refers to the phenomenon of wind picking up sand from deserts in China and Mongolia and blowing the fine particles throughout the rest of East Asia. This is a serious health threat to the Korean public because this wind also carries carcinogens that trigger illnesses such as cancer. As such, fine dust and air pollution is understandably a sensitive subject for South Koreans.

While many blame China alone for this problem, there are also reports that identify power plants in South Korea as a significant contributor to air pollution within the country. The pollution caused by Western countries is also an important factor. However, whether or not China alone is responsible for air pollution, the words  “fine dust” and “China” are practically synonymous online. For example, the South Korean governmental agency National Institute of Environmental Research often publishes reports specifically connecting the fine dust issue to China by referring to fine dust as “China fine dust” or “China’s fine dust”. This is significant because whether knowingly or unknowingly, the National Institute of Environmental Research has succeeded at creating an association between fine dust, which seriously threatens the health of the Korean public, and China. 

The Power of the Internet

Thus, the current level of anti-China sentiment in South Korea is a result of conflicts with China that reveal Korean societal anxieties concerning history and culture distortion, economic dependence, and public health. However, these issues are further amplified by one factor: the internet. 

The importance of the internet in this discussion is tied to the fact that Korean anti-China sentiment is highest among the younger generation. As founded by IFANS, the 2030 Generation (those in their 20s and 30s) hold more negative views of China compared to other generations. For example, when asked if they view China as a friend or an enemy, 62.8 percent of South Korea respondents ages eighteen to twenty-nine said they see China as an enemy. In comparison, the overall average of South Koreans who said they view China as an enemy was 49.1 percent. Moreover, because the younger generation is the most technologically savvy, they are able to quickly spread their views and dominate the internet culture. This influence on internet culture is even more important given that South Korea has one of the fastest-growing internet networks in the world with over 90 percent of the Korean public using the internet. This helps explain how China has replaced Japan as the most disliked country in South Korea. 

Implications for Policymakers

Firstly, the importance of the internet and social media have proven to be powerful vehicles for public opinion. Because the internet allows users to quickly and widely share information, negative and hateful rhetoric is easily spread among large populations. The rise of anti-China sentiment and language online in Korean media is important because this public opinion could put pressure on officials and can translate into foreign policy.

The second implication is the gap that exists between the older and younger generations in South Korea. While China is viewed negatively in South Korea on average, these negative views are especially high among the younger generation. This gap in perception between the 2030 generation and other generations may foreshadow a shift in Korean foreign policy later down the line. As the 2030 generation grows older and becomes the leaders of their country, their unique views and concerns will be reflected in policy.

Thirdly, this issue demonstrates the power of word association and phrasing in spreading anti-China sentiment. Because the fine dust issue is commonly associated with China in news and research reports (e.g., 중국의 미세먼지 or China’s fine dust), it is easier for the public to associate their negative feelings and anxieties concerning this health issue solely with China. In addition, the use of online slang such as 혐중 (meaning “China repugnance” in reference to anti-China sentiment) makes it easy to disseminate anti-China sentiment. This demonstrates the need for careful and exact language when addressing serious issues in order to not incite hate.

Finally, US policymakers should pay attention to anti-China sentiment in South Korea because it is a lesson of how antipathy towards foreign countries can build up over time and reach concerning levels. Even though the United States and South Korea are allies, this does not make the United States an exemption. In fact, although China is currently the most negatively viewed foreign country in South Korea, there is also a long history of anti-Americanism. Thus, the United States should make every effort to maintain a positive diplomatic relationship with South Korea and refrain from encroaching on South Korea in key matters such as culture and public health.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

Image: Defense Department (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Arlo Abrahamson)