On 27 January a petition was filed to South Korea’s Blue House. It counted half a million signatories, and aimed at banishing visitors from China in an effort to escape the coronavirus epidemic. It was a different world back then. The coronavirus was not a pandemic yet, and Seoul had only four cases on record, all of them imported from China. South Korea at the time of this writing counts almost 10,000 cases, according to data gathered from the World Health Organization. Over time, as the number of cases increased, anti-Chinese sentiment also grew around the country, and when Tokyo began to implement an entry ban on foreigners coming from South Korea, anti-Japanese sentiment returned under the spotlight.
Japan is South Korea’s preferred bête noir, and resentment traces back to Tokyo’s colonial dominance (1910-45). After the Second World War, the division of Korea and the conflict with the North led to the establishment of a right-wing authoritarian regime in Seoul, which combined strict social control with developmental aims. During the Cold War, Japan became the most-likely economic partner and bilateral relations were normalized, save for addressing the wartime grievances of South Koreans. Yet, as the country transitioned from authoritarianism to democracy in the early 1990s, South Korea’s historical memory emerged: Japanese state-sponsored sex slavery and forced labour in fact fuelled nationalist discourse on the victimisation of Korea. Anti-Japanese sentiment thus became a feature of the country’s politics, and was often employed by left-wing politicians to gather consensus.
A similar story can be told for anti-Chinese sentiment, which is rooted in China’s imperial past. Animosity increasingly exacerbated during the 1950-53 Korea war, as China aligned with the Communist North, and has become an ally to the latter ever since. Frictions were so serious that diplomatic relations only resumed in 1992. Yet, Seoul and Beijing are far from amicable neighbours. In 2017, a dispute erupted over the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in South Korea, which year-long negotiations could only relax.
In this spirit, at the start of the coronavirus epidemic in China, Moon Jae-in sent about US 5 million dollars’ worth medical equipment to Wuhan in an effort to show China South Korea’s support. Amongst them were around 2 million face masks and 1 million medical masks: items that shortly afterwards started to lack around the country, as the number of sick rose. The donation did not pass unnoticed to the public, especially as many were forced to line up in front of department stores to attempt buying protective masks, warnings against mass gatherings notwithstanding. Eventually, Moon’s solidarity ended up harshening tones both against China and himself.
In the past two years, South Korean public perception towards China had already been facing a descent. According to a Pew Research Centre 2019 poll, 63% of interviewees had an overall negative opinion of China, up 3 points from 2018. In addition, 74% had no confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ability to administer the country in 2019, up no-less than 13 points from the previous year. Rooted in the history between the two countries, brooding anti-Chinese sentiment found practical applications at the height of South Korea’s epidemic: many restaurants around the country, in fact, displayed “no-Chinese-allowed” signs at their entrances.
Despite the negative reactions of the public, Moon remained supportive throughout the crisis, and did not limit the circulation of Chinese nationals, except those arriving from the most infected areas. Moon’s approach towards China was motivated by a quest for the legitimacy of his economic policy, which remains at the bedrock of his political agenda. The same goal had originally led him to attempt planning President Xi’s state visit to South Korea in the first half of 2020—right before the elections. After all, China is a major trade partner to Seoul, and accounted for 25% of the country’s total exports in 2017 (US 149 billion dollars). The United States, in contrast, was only the second destination for South Korea’s exports (US 69 billion dollars).
Conversely, Moon’s Japan policy turned out to be more expendable, especially after last year’s restrictions on commerce escalated into a full-blown trade war between the two countries. Indeed, anger at Tokyo’s “economic invasion” led to mass boycotts of consumer goods and a significant decrease of Korean tourism. As a result, according to the Harvard International Review, roughly 79% of the interviewees in the country retain a negative opinion of Japan. The ruling coalition repeatedly exploited anti-Japanese popular outbursts (as hinted by a partisan think tank), and Moon was no exception accustomed as he is to this kind of politicking. In 2018, for instance, he deemed the wartime-sex-slave compensation fund negotiated by the previous conservative government with Tokyo insufficient to solve the issue and scrapped it. However, poor economic results and dwindling popularity proved to be Moon’s final straw, and the President harshened its anti-Japanese stance. In fact, Tokyo’s decision to impose compulsory self-isolation for Korean travellers and cancel short-term visas prompted Moon’s quick retaliation with equal measures.
Whichever Moon’s original strategy, the rise of anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese sentiments run the risk to influence vote-casters in the upcoming elections. The President’s approach towards China, in particular, does not go in the President’s favour. Moon’s support for Beijing, in fact, had gone against public preferences, partly rupturing the President’s relation with South Koreans at an extremely critical juncture for the future of his presidency. In contrast, Moon’s stricter approach towards Tokyo has earned him some popular support, which will possibly yield results in next-week elections.
Yet, unexpected help is also coming to Moon from the coronavirus crisis itself. The President’s domestic health measures, in fact, have been considered successful by South Koreans, and Moon’s preferences are now soaring, reaching a 55% in the latest Gallup Korea poll, up 6% from the previous week. A ray of sunshine that the President should certainly hope will continue to shine for another week.