South Korea

Despite the announcement on October 31, 2017 to improve South Korea-Chinese bilateral relations,1 and the summit between presidents Moon Jae-in and Xi Jinping in December 2017, South Korea is still under China’s economic and trade retaliation over the THAAD issue. China has not been shy about using its economic tools to coerce South Korea in the past, i.e., the garlic war in 2000 and the kimchi war in 2005. As South Korea’s trade dependence on China has grown, China is in a stronger position to use various economic tools to coerce South Korea for diverse purposes. Of course, Chinese officials deny the existence of sanctions or retaliation led by the government. They say all measures are voluntary, not official. However, the fact is that China is not afraid of using its economic tools whenever it feels an inclination to do so without respect for generally accepted norms, practice, and process in trade. As its economic power and asymmetrical interdependency in trade grow, China is more likely to use its economy and trade to force changes in non-economic and non-trade areas.2

In addition to these unmistakable economic pressures, there are other ways of coercing or interfering in other countries’ internal as well as external affairs. This may include direct or indirect diplomatic pressure over some accidents and incidents; information dissemination and manipulation of media to form pro-Chinese public opinion and understanding (not necessarily fake news), diverse public diplomacy activities at various levels and fields to create a favorable environment for China; interfering and exerting control over academic activities; and using financial support to breed pro-Chinese opinions. These activities have become much more widespread and sophisticated in recent years. In other words, nowadays, China has more tools in its tool box. It can use any tool in different ways: bluntly, softly, or sharply. Here I examine how China has used different methods to interfere in South Korean affairs.

Arenas of Interference

China’s interference in South Korea’s internal as well as external affairs are diverse and widespread. Democratic institutions and norms are not excluded. Of course, it is uncertain whether China has ever intervened in or influenced South Korea’s elections, most importantly the presidential election. In the most recent presidential election in May 2017, Qi Guohong, Chinese ambassador to Seoul, was very active in meeting key South Korea politicians.3 Qi tried different optics and delivered different messages depending on each one’s position on THAAD: some messages were more or less friendly; and he also expressed some hopes or concerns. This is a clear contrast to the record of his public appearances since 2014. He may have been directed to deliver the message from Beijing or he may have had other intentions. But one thing is clear: the election outcome would affect relations between South Korea and China. As a result, Beijing had a clear preference for which candidate it favored. It is unclear whether Qi’s meetings with senior party officials, including a presidential candidate, is a kind of interference in domestic affairs. But it was a quite unusual for a sitting ambassador to be engaged in such diplomatic activities and public exposure. During the election period, diplomats are usually very careful in their contacts with officials and politicians and public exposure to prevent any impression of interference in critical domestic affairs. Yet, in April 2017, when the presidential campaign was under way, Wu Dawei came to Seoul and spent five days—an unusually long stay. Wu met with presidential candidates and key party officials.4 The question is the motive behind these activities and how we should interpret them during a presidential election period.

Another type of interference is in law-enforcement and legal processes that can be translated into obstruction of justice. One of the most obvious incidents took place on April 27, 2008 when two groups, Chinese students (believed to have been organized by the Chinese embassy in Seoul) and South Koreans plus some foreigners, collided over the torch-carrying event for the Beijing Olympics.5 The Chinese government, through a high diplomatic channel and behind the scenes, asked the South Korean government to apply special consideration and treatment (or exemption from normal legal procedure and release of the arrested) to the Chinese students who were arrested for violence. Of course, the Chinese government, in the meeting with senior South Korean diplomats, expressed solace and gratitude, neither regret nor apology, for the wounded reporters and policemen.

Similar behavior has been detected in the law-enforcement activities against illegal fishing by Chinese fishing boats in South Korea’s territorial waters. (It is estimated that approximately 100,000 Chinese fishing boats are involved in illegal fishing annually.) In the past, the Chinese side has criticized South Korea’s law-enforcement over this issue and demanded some kind of special treatment for its fishermen. But with growing tension among Chinese fishermen and the South Korean marine police,6 the Chinese have begun to moderate their demand for special treatment. Nonetheless, the Chinese still demand moderation of law-enforcement activities at sea and due legal process. South Korean fishermen’s strong demands for resolute responses to Chinese illegal fishing activities and South Korean government firmness may have contributed to the recent moderation in Chinese behavior and attitude. Still there is a long way to go on this issue.

China interferes with academic freedom in indirect ways, and its interference in media and the press is also not so obvious. For example, to have any kind of public academic event in China, the South Korean institute needs to have advance approval of China’s Public Security Bureau, which usually reviews the list of subjects and participants of the proposed events. If the Public Security Bureau sees any kind of problem, it does not allow that event to take place. In a similar fashion, nowadays, especially since the THAAD dispute, it is quite difficult to have Chinese experts join academic events in South Korea. Granted, closed door meetings are possible, and specialists can meet with Chinese counterparts at academic events elsewhere where they are permitted to travel, but this severely restricts scholarly activities related to sensitive topics if it involves Chinese experts. Sometimes, Chinese experts come to South Korea to explain and promote Chinese positions on certain issues or a Chinese policy initiative such as the Belt and Road initiative (BRI). In addition, by providing information7 and support for academic events, China encourages its experts and those of South Korea to speak for China: that is, China’s public diplomacy or sharp power activity. China experts from South Korea are generally very careful in their work not to provoke China since they are afraid of the possibility that Chinese authorities will deny them a visa to China or limit their interviews: it is a kind of self-censorship. Nowadays, Chinese authorities are trying to have more pro-China voices in South Korea by providing various kinds of support, including financial support, for China studies directly or indirectly. In South Korea, there are twenty-three Confucius Institutes in 22 universities and thirteen Confucius Classrooms in 13 middle and high schools.8 Not only institutes or schools but also individuals may receive undisclosed amounts of funding and financial support from China.9

China does not directly disrupt market principles in the domestic market of South Korea. But it has the tools to disrupt market principles and fair competition in China’s own market as China has become the largest trading partner of South Korea,10 and South Korea has become very much more vulnerable to Chinese use of economic and trade restrictions for commercial and political reasons. Two things stand out in these: China does not follow due process in resolving trade disputes, and it uses economic tools for political purposes. With regard to economic retaliation, Chinese officials deny the existence of such activities. Officially, the Chinese government maintains that these measures are taken voluntarily by the private sector and individual citizens. Or they say Korean companies violate or fail to meet local regulations such as fire-safety codes,11 food-safety standards, and industrial standards. Sometimes, they impose extra time and fees for clearing customs for items shipped from South Korea. This is often the case for perishable items, such as lime cosmetics and food.12 Chinese officials can easily apply any of their tools without offering any plausible explanation.

The Nature of Interference

The aforementioned cases of Chinese interference in South Korea’s domestic and external affairs clearly show that the Chinese government and Communist Party of China and their agencies are behind all of these. In most cases, the Chinese authorities deny their involvement in guiding such activities. Without their directives, however, such well-coordinated, systematic, and clearly-targeted ways of interference or coercion would not be apparent. In addition, local authorities, especially Shandong Province, try to contribute their own share to such goings on, putting pressure on counterparts in South Korea to assert their influence. In light of greater comfort with progressive Korean politicians, with whom they have been trying to establish good working relations, the pressure may be applied differentially in political circles.

Government-sponsored or -funded organizations and institutes, of which China has many, are very active in public diplomacy: the Chinese Association for International Understanding, China Society for People’s Friendship Studies, China National Committee for Pacific Economic Cooperation, China Foundation for International Studies, China International Public Relations Association, Association of Former Diplomats of China, China-Asia Economic Development Association, China Association for International Friendship Contact, and China Public Diplomacy Association are among the 19 organizations registered under the Chinese foreign ministry. Occasionally they host conferences, seminars, or meetings in China and send delegations to South Korea. They approach South Korean think-tanks and academia and try to establish networks with South Korean counterparts in one way or another. So far, they lack well-developed networks, but, as time goes by and cooperation increases with financial support coming from China, more South Korean think tanks and people in academia will be under Chinese influence. In addition, Chinese students in South Korea can become a tool of the Chinese government, directly or indirectly.

Another group of actors to whom one needs to pay attention are the so-called Chinese power-bloggers since South Korean media and netizens have become very attentive to them. Sometimes they are a source of information, at other times of disinformation. It is uncertain whether they are under government influence or not. But they play a very significant role in forming Chinese public opinion in cyber space and indirectly influence South Korean public opinion. For example, when the THAAD issue became the hottest topic between China and South Korea, they were the ones who aroused anti-South Korean sentiments among the Chinese people and threatened the South Korean public openly. As a result, the South Korean public became extremely alarmed over possible Chinese retaliation over THAAD.

Finally, China has been trying to find and strengthen pro-Chinese groups in various fields, mostly in academia and the media. It has used various tools including financial support. They are the main target of Chinese public diplomacy. As a result, these people appear to be very much sympathetic to China and argue that South Korea needs to understand China’s foreign policy in general and China’s position on specific issues. From their perspective, the lack of understanding of China’s intentions is the main source of the problem between South Korea and China.

The Responses of South Korea

Until recently, South Korea’s responses to Chinese coercion and/or intervention have been rather limited, self-constrained due to several factors. First of all, South Korea had previously viewed China as a benign power and believed in Chinese goodwill. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992, until recently, Sino-South Korean relations were generally perceived as so good that South Koreans expected mainly good things from China—a romantic view of China. Second, South Korea was and still is concerned about the possibility of economic retaliation from China—a fear of China. Third, many were swayed by the argument that China was on the rise whereas the United States was in decline: a power transition. This even led some to acquiesce that the “China model” (Beijing consensus) would be better than the “American model” (Washington consensus). Finally, South Korea believed that to solve the North Korean problem, it is necessary to have Chinese cooperation: a China leverage argument. 

These perceptions began to change circa 2010 when China was reluctant to stand on the side of South Korea over the Cheonan sinking incident. And when China announced the CADIZ (Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone) unilaterally in November 2013, the South Korean government and public became much more concerned with China’s assertiveness and its implications for South Korea. This mood reached its peak when China began to use its economic and trade tools vis-à-vis South Korea over the THAAD issue. Despite economic retaliation, the South Korean government as well as public, stood firm on its decision to deploy THAAD. The majority of the South Korean public thought China was trying to interfere in South Korea’s sovereignty, which could not be tolerated.

There is a difference between the South Korean government and public in their response to China’s retaliatory measures. Compared to the government’s cautious approach toward China, the public appeared to be quite firm on this issue. Such public attitudes might have made the Moon administration stick to the position inherited from the previous Park administration.


The many cases of Chinese interference and coercion have led South Koreans to change their perceptions and understanding of China. It is very unlikely for them to revert to the old romantic view of China. And, with the rise of anti-Chinese sentiment and the growing concern of China’s rise, the country is more likely to stand firm on Chinese interference in domestic affairs as well as external affairs in the future. South Korea is less vulnerable than before 2010 and especially 2016 to China’s soft power. It is under pressure from China’s hard power—exerted through economic means—but so far has resisted that well. The main danger may be coming from China’s increasing use of sharp power through sowing divisions, dangling financial carrots for nefarious purposes, and taking advantage of the openness of a democratic society.

Without succumbing to romantic views of China, the people and governments of various countries may feel the pressure of fear of China or alarm over how China may use its leverage, or just acquiesce to a sense of inevitability over what is perceived as a power transition. Yet, China is likely to exercise “sharp power” more often in the future. By taking into account the fact that China has become very active in public diplomacy and has more diverse domestic and overseas programs, it is possible to say that China will have more tools, and perhaps more sophistication, for influencing other countries including South Korea, and it will use those tools whenever it feels necessary. Given the rising anti-Chinese sentiment caused by Chinese economic retaliation over THAAD, China is less likely to use its power bluntly and overtly. Instead, to form and spread pro-Chinese sentiment and discourse, China is likely to focus more on the following:

  • Building networks (or personal ties) in various fields, mostly academia and political circles and increasing the opportunities for exchange and contact;
  • Supporting the activities and/or programs of individuals, schools, and institutes;
  • Providing information to those who are in a position to form and influence public opinion;
  • Using cyber space to influence public understanding of China and its policies; and
  • Using economic tools such as investments as an incentive, not retaliation.

China will work hard to achieve its own long-term strategic objective: creation of a Sino-centric order by creating a favorable environment for the attainment of that goal. This leads us to conclude that we must be well aware of and much more concerned with China’s sharp power in the coming period and that we must think of how we should respond to this in a proper way for sustaining a rules-based order and values we have cherished throughout the postwar era.

1. On October 31, 2017, the ROK and the PRC announced the outcome of consultations to improve bilateral relations. The most controversial issue was the “3 noes” (no participation in missile defense, no additional THAAD, and no trilateral alliance among the United States, Japan, and South Korea). The Chinese side expressed concern over these issues, while the South Korean side explained its position. It is reported that South Korea has lost more than $6 billion from March to July 2017 in the tourism industry alone. If we add cosmetics, retail-shops, and automobiles (plus batteries for electronic cars), the total amount of the loss amounts to about $20 billion.

2. In 2010, China banned the export of rare earth materials to Japan after its dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands had captured the spotlight. In 2010, China banned the import of salmon from Norway over the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese political dissident. In 2012, China banned the import of bananas from the Philippines in response to new tensions over a maritime zone China claims. And, in 2016, China imposed a series of economic and trade restrictions in retaliation against Taiwan after a new president refused to deal with the “One China” issue in the manner desired. These forms of economic pressure reveal a pattern.

3. Qi met Moon Jae-in, Lee Heeho, Park Jiwon, and Kim Jongin during that period. He did not meet any politician from the conservative parties.

4. Wu met with three presidential candidates: Shim Sangjeong of the Justice Party (Jeongwuidang), Ryu Seungmin of the Righteous Party (Bareundang), and Hong Joonpyo of the Liberal Korea Party (Jayoohankookdang). In addition, he met with Song Younggil of the Democratic Party (Minjudang) and Park Jiwon of the People’s Party(Kukminuidang)

5. Donga Ilbo, April 28, 2008,,html?issueid=31888newsid= 20080428031208662&cp=donga.

6. On October 7, 2016 Chinese fishing boats bumped and sank a speed boat of the South Korean marine police. On October 13, a spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that it hopes that the South Korean government will resolve the issue with calm and reason. But the Chinese side added that the South Korean government must take into account the state of bilateral relations and regional stability and approach this issue from a great power’s understanding of the bigger picture.

7. The Chinese side has provided information about THAAD to South Korean experts for them to raise questions about its effectiveness and why it threatens China’s national security, making it easier for them to make arguments against THAAD.

8. It is not possible to know how much and what kind of assistance Chinese authorities have provided to each Confucius Institute,

9. In recent days, China has become much more active in public diplomacy and has also increased financial contributions through various organizations such as the China Foundation for International Strategic Studies (CFISS), Chinese Association for International Understanding (CAIFU), China Association for Friendship (CAFF), China International Public Relations Association(CIPRA), and China Public Diplomacy Association (CPDA).

10. The volume of South Korea’s exports to China in 2017 was $227.916 billion (27.2% of the total) and of imports was $179 billion (20.1% of the total).

11. For example, Lotte retail shops (about 130) in China were forced to close due to violations of the fire-safety code. China began to force Lotte to close the stores once Lotte decided to exchange its golf course in Sungjoo, where THAAD was going to be deployed, with other property provided by the South Korean government.

12. Another type of market disruption is copying South Korean products and industrial espionage. About 60 % of industrial espionage cases from 2003 to 2016, including attempted cases, were related to China. The main target areas have shifted from automobiles, ship-building, and the steel industry to precision machines, electronics, information and communications technology, and bio-technology.