○ South Koreans living in China have voiced concerns about their safety after protests against South Korea followed the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system
○ Rumors and fake news which have spread like wildfire on social media have exacerbated tensions, South Koreans said
The 11th China Shenyang Korea Week began on August 24, 2012. Shenyang in Northeast China's Liaoning Province is home to a significant number of South Koreans. Photo: IC
South Koreans hold a rally in front of the Defense Ministry in Seoul on Tuesday to voice their objection to the planned deployment of THAAD in the country. Parts of the system arrived in the country the previous day. Photo: CFP
Hong Seong-hun came to China from his homeland of South Korea to pursue his passion for Traditional Chinese Medicine. But the 30-year-old has found it hard to focus on his studies recently, as the relationship between Seoul and Beijing seems to keep getting worse.
After Korea's Lotte Group conglomerate agreed to a land swap with the South Korean government so the military can deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system last week, sporadic protests against Lotte as well as South Korea more generally have been launched around the country.
"I am a little bit anxious when going out," said Hong, who has been living in Beijing for seven years, saying he fears the rising anti-South Korean sentiment he sees around him.
Hong's worries are shared by many South Koreans living in China. The country's embassy in Beijing even issued a safety warning to its citizens on March 3, saying they should avoid "unnecessary arguments" with locals on "certain issues."
Facing the lowest point of China-South Korea ties in recent years, South Korean residents of China interviewed by the Global Times spoke of their worries about both their own lives in the country, but also their concern that ties between the two nations may be damaged in the long-term.
Lee Shin (pseudonym), a student at Beijing's Tsinghua University, told the Global Times on Wednesday that he's become seriously concerned about his personal safety, because in the last few days he's seen and read plenty of stories about South Koreans being challenged or even threatened by Chinese people, including videos of demonstrations against South Korea in front of a Lotte supermarket.
"I heard that a restaurant selling Korean food near our campus, which is owned by Chinese people, began to refuse service to South Koreans. And a South Korean student at Renmin University of China was beaten up and is still hospitalized," recalled Lee.
He said he read these stories in a Wechat group for South Koreans studying in China. There have been no reports in the Chinese media on any outbreaks on violence against Koreans. Some Chinese media outlets and scholars have called for a reasonable response toward South Korea rather than violence.
But the rumors have already caused panic among the students. Lee and his roommates have decided not to venture off their campus for a while.
"I hope I can graduate as soon as possible," said Lee, who's been in Beijing for half a year, and is supposed to finish his course in 2018.
Kang Mi-young (pseudonym), who has lived in Beijing since 2015, said this is the first time she has felt worried about her safety in China.
"I'm worried that I might become the target of retaliation when I go out … I have to be more vigilant than before," Kang told the Global Times.
It's estimated that there are about 300,000 South Koreans living in the Chinese capital.
Business slowing down
Though Lotte has just started to experience a backlash, South Korean companies with commercial interests in China may have already seen their business in the country affected.
Rumors that the Chinese government has taken measures to clamp down on South Korean pop culture have long circulated, including allegations that South Korean artists have been banned from performing in China and that Chinese companies have been ordered not to buy South Korean TV shows.
There have also been allegations that Chinese tour companies have been told to "avoid" taking tour groups to South Korea.
The existence of these policies has not been officially confirmed by the authorities.
According to data from China's Ministry of Commerce issued on February 27, China was South Korea's biggest export market and biggest source of imports as of the end of January.
A Reuters report this week said that Chinese visitors contribute more than any other group of foreign holiday makers to the country's tourist economy, spending about $8 billion a year on duty free goods.
A statement sent by the Korean Chamber of Commerce in China to the Global Times on Wednesday claimed bilateral trade has not affected by the current tension between the two countries.
Bad faith rumors
Rumors and fake news are not only running wild within the South Korean community in China, but also among Chinese people.
A 10-second video clip of a protest in South Korea, which captions claim is an anti-China demonstration, has circulated widely on Chinese social media since Lotte's land swap decision. However it is actually footage of a weekly protest in Seoul against embattled President Park Geun-hye.
"Those incorrect reports only aggravate the civil relations between the two countries," Hong noted. "As an ordinary person, I only hope the fake news like this will come to an end."
On Wednesday, the South Korean Embassy also issued a statement saying its citizens should be skeptical of reports that South Korean citizens were victims of xenophobic violence in China.
A rumor also spread that Lotte chief Shin Dong-bin told the Korea media that Chinese protesters would forget all about demonstrating if they were offered a small discount at stores.
Lotte's Chinese branch issued a statement on Monday rubbishing this story. Lotte wrote in the statement they have a "deep friendship" with China.
But despite these statements, some Lotte stores have been forced to close after local governments launched surprise fire inspections, many of which found "safety hazards" that had seemingly gone unnoticed before. Some stores have also boycotted Lotte products.
Lack of communication
The THAAD missile defense system started deploying this week, with the first elements of the system arriving in South Korea following North Korea's latest test of four ballistic missiles on Monday.
The US anti-missile system features a far-reaching radar, which will be able to reach deep into China.
China worries that THAAD could be used to spot Chinese missile launches and feed the data to the US. South Korea's Yonhap News Agency has reported that the deployment could be completed in one or two months.
The South Korean government decided to deploy the defense system in July last year. Some South Koreans have expressed annoyance at not being consulted about this move.
"Though national security is paramount, the government should not have made its decision about deploying such a controversial defense system without enough communication with the people," Kang told the Global Times.
"If the government could help citizens understand their decision, there would not be such fierce opposition domestically."
Residents of Seongju county, which will host THAAD, are concerned they could become targets if war breaks out in the future.
"South Korea is caught in an awkward position," Hong said. "If China could control North Korea and stop their nuclear tests, THAAD would be unnecessary."
Kang also noted that the diplomatic problems can be solved through peaceful means rather than inching closer to a war. "The people of the two Koreas are still brothers and sisters. The issue should not be solved through the use of force," Kang noted.
"Previously the US sided with South Korea mainly due to ideological reasons, but now they have their own interests, to get a better position in the region."
Facing the future
Lee's biggest concern is that China's strong stance on THAAD will lead an anxious South Korean public to elect a right-wing government who also talk tough on national security.
"There are a lot of THAAD opponents back home. But China's stance toward South Korea makes these people concerned about their security and doubt whether China-South Korea ties are trustworthy," said Lee.
"I'm afraid that the South Korean public will vote for a right-wing government in the upcoming presidential election, just like Japan did after its crisis with China in 2012."
According to a recent VOA report, the political turmoil in South Korea over the impeachment of President Park, which is expected to come to a head on Friday, is exposing sharp divisions in the country over national security policy. While conservatives have voiced strong support for the US alliance, progressives want to maintain more friendly ties with China.
If the country's constitutional court upholds her impeachment in its final decision, a presidential election will be held in 60 days. If the court strikes down the impeachment, Park will be reinstated to continue her presidency until February 2018.
Beijing Korean Association chief Kim Yong-man told the Global Times what worries him is not only THAAD, but also what might happen if South Koreans begin to lean toward Japan.
"In the last two decades, most Korean people had a good impression of China," Kim told the Global Times. "But in the last half year, the impression of Chinese people among Koreans worsened due to lack of mutual respect."
"If China gives Korea too much pressure, some Korean will turn against China … Though currently the Korean public would not allow an alliance with Japan, but if this changes, the situation in Northeast Asia will be more complicated, which is what I am afraid of," Kim said.