On March 9, South Koreans head to the voting booths to elect their new president. Although conventional wisdom posits that foreign affairs have little effect on voting preferences, South Koreans have defied this prediction in the past—and now, they may once again. Indeed, the atmosphere in this year’s election recalls that of 2002, when anti-American sentiments swept the South Korean presidential election. This time, it may be anti-Chinese sentiments that make an impact.
According to our survey of over one thousand South Koreans, conducted this past January, a large majority of respondents—78 percent—indicated that Republic of Korea (ROK)-China relations will be an important consideration when deciding which presidential candidate to vote for. Given that younger South Koreans are expected to be the deciding factor in this election, it is particularly significant that the figure rises to 82 percent for respondents in their twenties. Twenty years ago, anti-American sentiments tipped the vote in favor of Roh Moo-hyun, the liberal candidate, who pledged not to kowtow to the United States. This time, how will anti-Chinese sentiment play out in Seoul? Will it work in favor of the conservatives, who tend to be tougher on China and emphasize the U.S.-ROK alliance? And what does this mean for Washington?
The Beijing Winter Olympics were illustrative of South Korea’s brewing anti-Chinese sentiments. Many South Koreans were enraged first at the appearance of a woman in hanbok (South Korea’s traditional costume) during the opening ceremony, charging China with “cultural theft,” and then at what they perceived as the unfair penalization of South Korean short-track speed skaters. Presidential candidates joined the critical chorus, as they could not risk being viewed as “soft” on China with the upcoming election looming. This Olympic tension has a precedent in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, in which the disqualification of a South Korean speed skater provoked anti-American sentiments in South Korea ahead of an election.
The current Olympic controversy is part of a larger trend of negative sentiments toward China: South Korean views of China have sunk to their lowest since diplomatic normalization between the two countries in 1992. They are now even lower than views of Japan, a significant shift that has political and security implications. Indeed, our survey shows that even before the Olympics, feelings toward China averaged just 26.5 on a scale of 0 (very negative) to 100 (very positive), compared to 30.7 for Japan and 69.1 for the United States. Moreover, 42 percent of our respondents supported the idea of a diplomatic boycott of the Olympic Games, in line with many South Koreans’ complaints that Seoul is too soft on Beijing.
Of course, South Koreans are not alone in their negative feelings toward China. A 2021 survey conducted by Pew Research Center shows that unfavorable views of China had reached near historic highs in seventeen advanced economies, including Japan (where 88 percent had negative views), Australia (78 percent), and the United States (76 percent), as well as South Korea (77 percent). Our recent survey found that 84 percent of South Koreans viewed China unfavorably, revealing that the prevalence of anti-Chinese sentiments in South Korea is increasing. As in many other societies, South Koreans are very critical of China’s political system and its handling of Covid-19: Eighty-four percent of our respondents believe the Chinese government does not respect its peoples’ personal freedoms, and of respondents who reported negative feelings toward China, 66 percent cited the pandemic outbreak as a contributing factor.
Yet, South Korea is distinctive from its peers for two reasons. The first is its reaction to China’s perceived cultural imperialism. Over half—55 percent—of our respondents who had unfavorable views of China selected cultural conflicts between the two countries, such as China’s alleged claims to kimchi and hanbok, as well as China’s perceived lack of respect for South Korea (62 percent) as contributing to their negative feelings. Historical issues also loom large for South Koreans: 52 percent of respondents with negative sentiments say they disapprove of China due to disputes between the two countries over the distant past. For example, China’s Northeast Project lays claim to the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo, which South Koreans have long viewed as part of their own history.
The second way South Koreans differ from others is in the demographic underpinnings of their anti-Chinese sentiments. Out of fourteen countries polled by Pew in 2020, South Korea was the only country in which more young people (aged 18–29) viewed China unfavorably than those aged fifty and older. A 2021 study by the South Korean monthly SisaIN confirmed that younger South Koreans do indeed have the strongest negative feelings toward China of any age cohort, with those in their twenties holding views nearly two times more negative than those in their fifties and sixties. In our survey, too, younger South Koreans aged eighteen through thirty-nine were more likely to support a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics than older cohorts. Having grown up with liberal, democratic values, they appear to be more critical of authoritarian, communist China than the older activists of “Generation 586” (South Koreans who are in their fifties, attended university in the 1980s, and were born in the 1960s). The 586ers, now in power, instead grew up amid anti-American sentiments that fostered greater sympathy toward China.
China was once thought to be brimming with economic opportunities for South Korea, but now, the country is increasingly losing favor. This shift in public sentiments will pose a major challenge for the new South Korean administration, which will come to power in May, in managing the bilateral relationship with China. In particular, South Korean foreign policy has long been guided by a paradigm called “an-mi-gyung-jung” (“United States for security, China for the economy”), but this balancing act seems to have run its course: only 43 percent of our respondents agree with this framework to some degree, with younger South Koreans showing the lowest proportion of agreement. Leading presidential candidates Lee Jae-myung and Yoon Seok-youl have both made tough remarks about China during their campaigns. But once in office, the new president will have to come up with an alternative paradigm that can reconcile negative public sentiment with the reality of China as a key economic partner.
At the same time, this shift can offer an excellent opportunity for the U.S.-ROK alliance, which was under stress during the Trump and Moon administrations. A 2019 survey by the Asan Policy Institute in Seoul shows that, in the case of continued U.S.-China rivalry, 75 percent of South Koreans would support strengthening ties with the United States, while only 19 percent would support siding with China. And while Seoul has thus far been hesitant to join the Quad for fear of angering Beijing, the new administration may be more receptive to America’s Indo-Pacific strategy—especially if Yoon wins. The Biden administration should move quickly to fill the U.S. ambassador position in Seoul, meet with the next South Korean president as soon as he or she is sworn in, and work closely to strengthen ties with the new ROK administration. Washington should not miss this opportunity, especially as a more strongly pro-American cohort of young South Koreans grows into a political force that will shape their country’s future.
Gi-Wook Shin is the director of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center and the Korea Program at Stanford University. Haley M. Gordon is a research associate at the Korea Program at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. Hannah June Kim is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe