[Column] S. Korea’s dangerous game of Sinophobia

Posted on : 2022-02-16 17:02 KST Modified on : 2022-02-16 17:02 KST
Can Korea afford to let things continue this way?
Zong Jin-ho
Zong Jin-ho
By Zong Jin-ho, professor at Handong Global University

Anti-Chinese sentiment has been mounting among South Koreans since the start of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, where a Korean Chinese participant in the opening ceremony appeared in the traditional Korean hanbok costume and rulings in short track speedskating events have sparked accusations of bias.

Things have escalated even more as politicians and presidential candidates have chimed in. In effect, they poured gasoline on flames of Sinophobia that have already been at an all-time high. Can we afford to let things continue this way?

Both the US and China place importance on South Korea’s geopolitical position and are looking to invest in technologies such as semiconductors. At the moment, South Korean emotions are skewed quite far in a pro-US direction, and it’s important to moderate that if we’re going to establish opportunities and stake out a place for practical diplomacy as those two sides grapple for dominance. When a scale leans too far to one side, it’s liable to collapse.

In both South Korea and China, emotions have been souring rapidly in the wake of South Korea’s deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, anti-missile system and China’s economic retaliation measures.

If South Korea hopes to take appropriate advantage of both the US and China through practical diplomacy, it should recognize that it only gains the power to draw both of them in when it can strike at least a 6:4 balance between them — even taking into account the history of the South Korea-US alliance.

It’s not in South Korea’s national interest whatsoever to have favorable attitudes toward China down in the 10% to 20% range like they are now.

Having relations that are so one-sidedly pro-US and anti-China stands to pose an even bigger diplomatic and economic burden on South Korea than its historically difficult relationship with Japan. It could also lead to South Korea being lopsidedly dragged around by the US in its heated race for dominance with China.

Even with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, South Korea’s reliance on China for trade grew to 31.8% (including indirect Hong Kong exports) as of 2020. For presidential candidates to be talking about additional THAAD deployments under these circumstances shows that they lack an even basic understanding of practical diplomacy when it comes to the Korean Peninsula.

It could also be a very damaging source of conflict in Northeast Asia as we attempt to resolve issues revolving around North Korea through peace and prosperity.

This means that the next administration is going to need to put as much priority on gaining public support for restoring relations with China as it does on strengthening relations with the US — if only to level out the uneven playing field.

South Korea is already a globally acknowledged economic, military, and cultural power. It needs to get past its “small country” inferiority complex when it comes to the US and China.

We should have more confidence in the globalization of the hanbok. Just as we value our fellow Koreans who live in the US, the fact that Korean Chinese people continue living as a minority in China, speaking our language and using our writing system, is a crucially important asset.

It’s bad enough the way South Koreans disparage Korean Chinese people and cause them to develop anti-South Korean attitudes. We can’t continue being so foolish as to provoke China in its “culture war” with South Korea in a way that results in Korean Chinese people becoming even more marginalized.

What would have been the right way to react to a Korean Chinese participant wearing a hanbok at the Beijing Winter Olympics opening ceremony? Would we have seen anything like this kind of controversy if it had been a Korean American wearing a hanbok at the opening ceremony of an Olympics being held in the US?

While the US is a federation of 50 states, China is a multiethnic federation with 56 ethnicities, including Han Chinese and Korean. It would certainly be an issue if the Chinese government had barred members of the Korean Chinese minority from wearing their own traditional clothing; we need to recognize that having participants in the opening ceremony wearing their own traditional garments is exactly as it should be.

For us to protest such a thing truly does bespeak an inferiority complex, and it’s the kind of thing that triggers anger among Chinese people, including the Korean Chinese public.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between South Korea and China. It’s crucially important to us to work toward restoring the South Korean-Chinese partnership to how it was before THAAD and before economic retaliation measures.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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