More than 80% respondents hope China, South Korea to maintain friendly ties, cooperation: GT survey

Editor's Note:

After the administration of Yoon Suk-yeol came to power in South Korea, the relationship between China and South Korea has continued to deteriorate.

From April 6 to 10, 2024, the Global Times Institute (GTI) conducted a survey in 17 administrative regions in South Korea.

The survey targeted ordinary people aged from 18 to 70, focusing on their perceptions of China, South Korea-China relations, South Korea-US relations, and domestic issues in South Korea. A total of 1,045 valid questionnaires were collected.
In terms of the perception of China, 72 percent of respondents in the survey conducted by the GTI expressed a desire to visit China in the future, with half of them hoping to do so within the next 3 years.

Among the 750 respondents who expressed a desire to visit China, tourism was the primary reason for their visit, with 93 percent of them stating that they wanted to visit China for tourism, far exceeding other reasons, and only 5 percent saying they want to work in China. When it comes to specific cities in China that respondents want to visit, Shanghai and Beijing were most favored, followed by Qingdao in Shandong Province and Zhangjiajie in Hunan Province.

Mu Yadi, a researcher at think tank Pangoal Institution, told the Global Times that the reason why so many respondents expressed a desire to visit China may be related to the "China craze" in the South Korean tourism industry.

"China's culture, cuisine, natural scenery, and convenient transportation systems are key factors that attract South Korean tourists. Data indicates that the majority of South Korean people have high expectations for China, and China is influential and attractive to South Korean people in terms of culture and tourism," Mu said.

However, at the same time, it should be noted that since President Yoon Suk-yeol took office, South Korea has diplomatically leaned more toward the US and Japan, distancing itself from China.

South Korean media has increased negative reports on China, leading to a more negative perception of China among young people, Chung Jae-hung, director of the Department of Security Strategy Studies & Center for Chinese Studies of the Sejong institute in Korea, told the Global Times.

Chung said that the reason for this is that since Yoon's administration presented a completely "one-sided" situation, emphasizing ideology, and strengthening cooperation with the US, Japan, and other Western countries. Their diplomacy has some "new Cold War" characteristics, which is an important reason for the change in South Korea-China relations. Previously, South Korea's foreign policy was relatively balanced, maintaining cooperation with both the US and Western countries, as well as seeking to maintain good relations with China, Russia, and even North Korea.

When asked to rate their level of understanding of China on a scale of 1-10, the average score given by the respondents was 5.3, indicating a "basic understanding" of China. Only 30 percent of respondents rated their understanding of China as "moderate" or "high" with a score no less than 7.

In terms of specific knowledge about China, the highest rate was related to the giant panda "Fubao," at 76 percent, followed by popular foods such as spicy hot pot and sugar-coated haws, with an awareness rate of 68 percent.

Lü Chao, a Korean Peninsula issues expert at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that his interactions with Koreans mirror the results of the above-mentioned survey. Korean people's understanding of China is indeed somewhat one-sided and limited. For example, their impressions of China mostly come from tourism.

Lü said that besides tourism, he welcomes more Korean friends to come to China to invest, work, study, and engage in more exchanges that will boost their understanding of China.

China-South Korea ties key to latter's development

Regarding the changes in South Korea-China relations in recent years, 57 percent of respondents said they believe that the relationship has become more distant or hostile, with 26 percent believing it has become more hostile, and 31 percent believing it has become more distant.

By contrast, only 11 percent of respondents believe the relationship has become closer and friendlier.

As to what kind of relationship should South Korea have with China, more than 80 percent of the respondents said they hope the two countries should remain friendly and cooperative ties. In specific, 52 percent think South Korea and China should remain cooperative but competitive ties; another think 10 percent prefer close and friendly ties while the other 20 percent choose cooperative ties.

"Currently, China-South Korea relations can be said to be not in a good stage, and there has even been some regression. The current South Korean administration has made many erroneous remarks on certain China-related issues, crossing the line as far as many Chinese people are concerned. Korean people do not understand China's principled position on these issues," Lü said.

Da Zhigang, director of the Institute of Northeast Asian Studies at the Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that according to opinion polls, South Korean people generally believe that the relationship between South Korea and China is becoming increasingly tense, and in some aspects, it has even deteriorated further.

Da believes that South Koreans perceive a distancing in relations with China due to their own cognitive issues, friction between China and South Korea, and the influence of other countries outside the region.

In the survey, more than half of respondents said they believe that the US is or may be a major factor hindering the establishment of friendly relations between South Korea and China, with nearly 20 percent not expressing a clear stance.

Da told the Global Times that the results of the Korean National Assembly elections may further influence the future policies implemented by the Yoon administration, and an increase in seats for the opposition party may provide a balance at the parliamentary level to maintain the basic stability of China-South Korea relations.

In the survey, over 70 percent of respondents affirmed the importance of South Korea-China relations for South Korea's future development. Over 80 percent of respondents acknowledge that China has aspects worth learning from for South Korea, with China's experiences in public health and medicine, as well as high-tech industries and technology, receiving the highest recognition.

In 2023, South Korea's trade balance with China turned into a deficit for the first time in 31 years, causing 82 percent of respondents to feel worried, uneasy, shocked, or angry.

Lü pointed out that many South Koreans often bring up the issue of the trade deficit when discussing China-South Korea relations. The reason for the trade deficit is that South Korea blindly follows the US and adopted a policy of decoupling from China, including in areas such as semiconductors.

"Restrictions on China in the high-tech and semiconductor sectors have led to this problem. South Koreans should be more aware of this," he said.

US' shadow

In the last two years, the US has increased pressure on South Korea to ban the export of semiconductors and other chips to China. A majority or 80 percent of respondents said they believe that the pressure has had a negative impact on the South Korean economy.

Zheng Jiyong, director of the Center for Korean Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, told the Global Times that the US does not allow South Korea to sell high-end semiconductor materials to China but allows some of its own companies to do so.

The US is taking advantage of the situation and is seizing South Korea's market share in China, and this has angered South Koreans, Zheng said.

The US also wants South Korea to transfer the core production chip technology to the US, which is crucial to South Korea's economy. It has also securitized various economic issues and set up trade barriers under the Indo-Pacific strategy, all with significant impacts on South Korea, Zheng noted.

Behind the scenes, the US has been instigating conflicts in industrial cooperation between China and South Korea, in a bid to create a narrative of negative competition between China and South Korea. The US has also deliberately stirred up issues related to North Korea, the island of Taiwan, and the South China Sea. In combination, these factors have affected trade between China and South Korea, and influenced public sentiment, according to Zheng.

"In the past, China-South Korea relations did not have structural problems. However, with the rise of extreme conservative forces following the entrance of the current administration, South Korea has actively participated in the US' Indo-Pacific strategy, leading to a significant decline in trade between China and South Korea. To address these issues, South Korea must first recognize the nature of the competition between China and the US, which is that the US is using all means to suppress China, and is using South Korea as a tool to contain China. If South Koreans understand this, they can leverage the competition between China and the US and utilize their strengths."

As for the recent South Korean parliamentary elections, where the ruling party suffered a major defeat, Zheng said that the South Korean government is likely to take action. "Whether they need to fix domestic political difficulties or address economic issues, they will need to improve relations with China," Zheng said.

When asked whether they were confident that the US-South Korea alliance would solve South Korea's security issues, nearly half of the respondents expressed doubt. Opinions on the role of the US in the Russia-Ukraine conflict were also divided, with many respondents stating they were unsure.

In terms of the perception of the US and the US-South Korea alliance among South Koreans, Zheng pointed out that while the US-South Korea alliance has existed for over 70 years, it cannot be compared to the US-Japan relationship. The risk of being abandoned by the US is higher for South Korea than Japan. Many South Koreans have a negative view of the US, especially regarding the imbalance in the US-Japan and US-South Korea alliances.
Policy not conducive to stability

Regarding South Korea's diplomatic actions in the last two years, 52 percent of respondents said they believe that they have had a negative impact on the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula, with 18 percent among them believing the impact is "very negative."

The rising cost of living in South Korea has also led to dissatisfaction among the population. Looking ahead, half of the respondents have a pessimistic outlook on the South Korean economy for the next year.

The responsibility for the negative development of the policy toward North Korea lies with the current administration, Wang Junsheng, an East Asian studies research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, told the Global Times.

The Yoon administration has not shown any sincerity in dialogues regarding North Korean issues. Therefore, the poll results just reflected South Korean people's disappointment with the policy toward North Korea, Wang said.

Wang noted that the current economic situation in South Korea has led to widespread discontent among the population. The economic downturn, coupled with rising prices, has fueled criticism of the government.

Wang also predicted that the Yoon administration would adjust policies following the parliamentary elections. However, economic issues that have been developing over a long period cannot be immediately changed. While a complete transformation is desirable, it may simply be wishful thinking. The internal divisions in South Korea are likely to continue, he warned.

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