Residents of Seongju and Kimcheon
With the Lotte Group agreeing to provide the site for deploying the THAAD missile defense system and South Korea’s Defense Ministry announcing plans to deploy THAAD between May and July, the deployment is on the verge of becoming a reality. As China begins to push back even harder, there are indications that South Korea’s relations with China are moving into a time of turbulence and uncertainty.
“I think relevant parties know full well the opposition of the Chinese people to the deployment of THAAD by the US and the ROK. I believe they have noted the voice of the Chinese people in recent days,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang in the regular press briefing on Feb. 28. “The Chinese market and consumers will determine whether a foreign company is successful in China.” This was Geng’s response to a reporter from the Global Times who said, “Many Chinese people say recently that they want to boycott the Lotte. Will the Chinese government take punitive measures against the Lotte Group?” The Chinese government basically said that it could do nothing about a potential boycott.
The day before, the Chinese media unanimously criticized the South Korean government and Lotte in connection with Lotte’s decision to provide land for THAAD and urged their audiences to participate in a boycott. In an editorial on Feb. 28 titled “Hurting Lotte and punishing South Korea: China has no other choice,” the Global Times urged readers to refrain from buying South Korean vehicles and mobile phones and to cancel plans to travel to South Korea. The paper called for restrictions on the import of South Korean cultural products to be gradually strengthened until there was a complete embargo and said that it was right and proper for China to drive Lotte from the Chinese market to set an example for others.
The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s Communist Party, also expressed its dissatisfaction in an editorial on Feb. 28 in which it said that “South Korea’s approval for the THAAD deployment has turned the [Korean] Peninsula into a powder keg.”
“If THAAD is deployed in South Korea, China’s relations with South Korea could conceivably be effectively severed,” warned Xiakedao, a social media account operated by the overseas edition of the People’s Daily.
There has also been disturbing signs from the Chinese government. On Feb. 28, Ri Kil-song, North Korea's vice foreign minister, visited Beijing on China’s invitation. With North Korea and China’s relationship complicated by North Korea’s launch of a ballistic missile, the killing of Kim Jong-nam and China’s suspension of imports of North Korean coal, there is speculation that the first visit to China by a senior North Korean official in nine months is connected with the THAAD deployment. On Feb. 27, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said that “any consequences entailed from [THAAD] will be borne by the US and the ROK,” strongly hinting that China would take retribution for the THAAD deployment.
China’s state-run news agency Xinhua had been scheduled to interview Kim Jang-soo, South Korea’s ambassador to China, about the Lianghui, but on the afternoon of Feb. 27, the day that Lotte confirmed it would provide land for THAAD, Xinhua abruptly informed Kim that it had to cancel the interview because there were not enough reporters available. The Lianghui are plenary meetings of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference that are held simultaneously.
Lotte is fretting about these indications from China. Currently, Lotte has 22 subsidiaries doing business in China and more than 20,000 Chinese on its payroll. The group is operating five department stores, 99 hypermarkets, 16 supermarkets and 12 movie theaters in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Shenyang, Weihai and Chengdu, and it has so far invested more than 10 trillion won (US$8.78 billion) with some subsidiaries even locating their production bases there. Since the end of last year, the Chinese government has been carrying out audits and fire safety and hygiene testing of Lotte’s workplaces in China.
By Kim Oi-hyun, Beijing correspondent
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