China’s Rhetoric toward South Korea: Smile Diplomacy Baring “Wolf Warrior” Teeth
Awaiting a new president in Seoul, Chinese publications continue to treat President Moon Jae-in with tolerance mixed with low expectations and guarded warnings. They often draw a sharp contrast between progressives and conservatives, emphasizing policy differences toward North Korea and China, but also toward the United States, and even Japan and Russia. Unlike the tone taken toward South Korea in 2016–17, in 2020–21 Chinese analysts offered hope for a way forward in bilateral relations, which could appropriately be called “smile diplomacy.” In the background, however, one can readily detect a more menacing tone, carrying forward the “wolf warrior” narrative of those two years of unmitigated hostility and portending a potential return to full “wolf warrior” mode.
The essence of smile diplomacy is a path forward through China-led economic regionalism, a community—exclusive to Asia—of shared destiny, and a multilateral security framework in place of the ROK–US alliance. It envisions the driving force for Koreans as a thirst for sovereignty consisting of two elements: breaking free of US domination, which has long undermined autonomous exercise of authority in Seoul; and more earnestly pursuing reconciliation with Pyongyang on terms that do not compromise its fierce adherence to self-control. It is entirely unconcerned about the possibility of dependency on China. The very idea that this could be problematic is dismissed as either a psychological excess of Koreans who misunderstand history or a Cold War mentality that has no place in this different era. It credits Moon Jae-in’s instincts as a reason to hope that Seoul could agree to this approach.
Pessimism, however, overshadows what dim hopes have been expressed for Moon’s choices. At the root of Chinese thinking about South Korea is the Korean War and the Cold War that followed, not because Seoul is singled out for what it did in 1950–53, but because it is treated as a pawn of no consequence and blamed for the way it still thinks about the war and its impact. Of relevance too are comparisons with North Korea, which analysts treat better on dimensions that matter. Security is a mainstay in such narratives, which assume a zero-sum relationship between the Sino–ROK and US–ROK dyads, leaving no room for the ROK–US alliance. Never far out of sight is the regional economic architecture, with Chinese authors demanding that Seoul enter into the BRI instead of entering into US-led reorganized supply chains. Finally, there is no letup in historical and cultural arguments imbued with Sinocentric assumptions about the past and their enduring validity for the future of Asia. Across all these themes, Chinese expectations are low that South Koreans will actually change their thinking.
Despite the negative warnings, Beijing opted for engagement with Moon Jae-in, crediting him with a more accommodating attitude toward North Korea, more seriousness about realizing autonomy in foreign policy, and greater interest in boosting ties to China than his predecessor. This was premised on three assumptions: 1) Moon’s obsession with advancing diplomacy with North Korea serves China’s interests; 2) Moon’s desire for greater autonomy from the United States, as well as his greater wariness of Japan, offers an opportunity to drive a wedge between allies; and 3) Korean progressives, whose worldview is more compatible with China’s, warrant encouragement or conservatives will return to power. If these were reasons for smile diplomacy, they were tempered by grave doubts that Moon would achieve much with Pyongyang, tilt much away from the US, or pursue a worldview at all close to China’s. Indeed, backtracking was seen as far more likely—hence the “wolf warrior” tone of commentaries lurking in the background.
The May 2021 Moon–Biden summit aroused a spate of criticism from China that Moon had tilted sharply toward Washington at Beijing’s expense. It appeared that he had done what Chinese had been warning Seoul it must not do if it wanted to avoid the painful punishment that an array of Chinese voices had warned could follow. Yet the response was more warnings, not a full break from smile diplomacy. Why? There are three possible explanations. First, Moon correctly judged where China has put its red lines and avoided crossing them, recognizing that Seoul is on a tighter leash than Tokyo, and that he had to stay clear of the language and behavior that characterized the Suga–Biden summit in April. This is the prevailing explanation, and it has some merit. Second, China may have calculated that a severe response would guarantee the election of a conservative president, sharply setting back hopes for leverage, and would also leave a bad image on the eve of the Beijing Winter Olympics. Third, as Beijing refocuses on economics at a time of new uncertainty about the state of China’s economy and hope for the recently signed RCEP agreement (which includes South Korea), it appears eager to boost its already strong economic ties to Seoul. While smile diplomacy has endured, there has been no reason to tone down “wolf warrior” warnings. Indeed, the reasoning behind them has been brought more conspicuously into the forefront in recent Chinese writings.
The Korean War
One factor impacting thinking on South Korea is recent glorification of the Korean War. In January 2021 Yang Dongquan took a close look at the Korean War, omitting any mention of South Korea as if there was just a remnant of the Korean Peninsula that was rightly going to be reincorporated by the legitimate government until an imperialist power intervened. Channeling the language of the 1950s, Yang tells readers that this was a war against US aggression and Mao alone, against great opposition, made the brilliant decision to enter the war and stand on the side of internationalism and the socialist camp.1 Boosting Sino–Soviet and Sino–North Korean relations was the correct decision, helping to modernize China’s armed forces and to prevent a US invasion of China. Yang does not see the US decision to support Taiwan as a response to China’s support for the North’s move into the South, about which the word invasion is omitted. Instead, he quotes Mao as insisting that Asians have to decide Asian affairs. Thus, the US invasion of North Korea can be seen as an invasion of Asia. China’s resistance to the US had great world significance and is connected to China’s liberation of Taiwan. If the American imperialists had won, they could have acted at will, threatening China.
What does this reasoning mean for thinking about South Korea today? Yang argues that South Korea is illegitimate, just an area to be liberated on the order of Taiwan. Comparing the US “invasion” to Japan’s invasion of Northeast China twenty years earlier, Yang holds that had China not resisted it would have led to further US aggression spreading to all of China. Indeed, Yang alleges that the US threat was greater than the earlier Japanese one, since the US would have squeezed China from three sides: Vietnam, Taiwan, and Korea. In this essay, Yang links the Korean War to today’s struggle over Taiwan, the joint defense of the socialist cause, and even the liberation of South Korea. The Korean War lives on today as a standard for judging the two Koreas and for dismissing the South for complicity with the US.2
Some readers may recall writings of serious historians as recently as several years ago that were in contradiction with Yang’s arguments. Shen Zhihua even made the case in a 2017 talk that “North Korea is China’s potential enemy, and South Korea is China’s possible friend.”3 Such arguments were a holdover from a different era and often linked to international research projects, far from the orthodoxy which has solidified in the past few years. Academic expertise is not where to turn for the mainstream narrative that now predominates across China. Extreme voices, such as Yang’s, are increasingly in the forefront. A major, military-led effort has been under way to purge “misinterpretations” of the Korean War and to leave no doubt about what is legitimate.4
In the 1990s there was some effort in China to uncover the true facts of the Korean War, as well as an attitude that it was time for the past rivals to put this war behind them so they could improve relations. In the 2010s, however, the war became a major part of a historical divide that matters greatly. This orthodoxy has been reinforced. The mainstream sees the war as an example of Chinese valor and of South Korean failure to assess history in the right manner. Anger over the BTS award-speech in 2020, when the band’s leader acknowledged the suffering in the war shared by the ROK and US but omitted China,provided proof not only of the raw emotions aroused by the war but also of a “wolf warrior” outburst unleashed against Koreans.5
ROK North Korean Policy
A significant shift occurred in Chinese writings about North Korea after the Xi Jinping–Kim Jong-un summits of 2018–19. We know little about the contents of those meetings—four in Beijing and one in Pyongyang—but we can discern the differences in what is said not only about North Korea and US–North Korean relations, but also on North–South ties.
At the end of 2020 Shen Wenhui and Liu Jialin wrote about Moon Jae-in’s North Korea policy, labeling it a dual-track approach to achieve denuclearization and unification and to strengthen the alliance with the US to deal with the nuclear threat.6 Calling this contradictory, they argue that the mix of geopolitics, domestic politics, and unification goals poses a great dilemma. The only way out is to end the ROK–US alliance and forge a permanent mechanism of peaceful coexistence on the peninsula. Moon must choose autonomy over alliance. He must accept the longstanding North Korean obsession with self-determination over Seoul-led unification (abandoning the German model of unification, which he invoked in a Berlin speech in 2017). He must prioritize a lasting peace structure on the peninsula over denuclearization. As an ally of the US, Seoul must recognize the great power impact of peninsular policies, as proven in the THAAD example. Further, Seoul must understand that the aim of Kim Jong-un’s summits of 2018–19 was sanctions relief and improvement in energy supplies and international trade. Moon’s approach would inflict great harm as it undercuts Kim Jong-un’s strategic self-sufficiency and defense principles, Shen and Liu claim.
Shen and Liu contend that Moon’s policy clashes with the US Indo–Pacific strategy prioritizing strategic competition, which seeks to use North–South divisions to sustain the US military presence on the peninsula, to maintain control over South Korea, and to sustain the North Korea–Japan confrontation which further justifies the US military role in the region. Nationality and alliance policies contradict each other. The first step is for Seoul to sever the Cold War alliance—essential for national autonomy. With no US troops or multilateral agreements, it can forge a framework of lasting peace. Shen and Liu make no demands of Pyongyang. Rather, they imply that only by separating South Korea from the US alliance framework—in the Indo–Pacific, Japan, and regarding troops on the peninsula—will China be satisfied, and only by abandoning a leadership role can Seoul find peace in Asia.7
This article reinforces Cheng Xiaohe’s 2020 argument that Sino–DPRK relations are more normalized than ever before and that improved Sino–ROK relations under Moon depend on how he engages the North and resists US efforts to pressure the North or contain China. China has already pledged “Four Firm Supports” for the North, although the pandemic has frozen certain interactions. Meanwhile, despite the severe breakdown in Sino–South Korean ties provoked by the ROK–US agreement to deploy THAAD, China and South Korea have since found a way to go forward despite China keeping some sanctions and repeatedly suggesting more may follow. Visits by Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi to South Korea in the second half of 2020 made clear that both “docking of development strategies” and a new 2 + 2 dialogue on diplomacy and security, presumably with major implications for North Korea, will test Seoul’s relations with Beijing.8
Meanwhile, Zhang Chi insists that the US opposes a multilateral security framework in place of the US alliance relations in Northeast Asia, while South Korea favors a North–South arrangement first and then the US, while China comes later. In contrast, China refuses to be excluded by a three-way approach and has resumed calls for a Northeast Asian security system based on six parties. The North Korean issue, however, is not as important for Northeast Asia as it was; a new approach is required from a regional security perspective. Zhang’s message is that China is uniquely positioned to contribute to the path forward.9 North Korea provides a means to realize this objective. The contrast in how North and South Korea are discussed in China points to the pressure Beijing seeks to put on Seoul, even more so after the improved Sino–DPRK ties achieved in 2018–19.
Kim Jong-un’s visits to China and Xi Jinping’s successful return visit are said to have dispelled the illusion that Seoul could proceed through ties to Washington and Pyongyang, while also refocusing the North’s thinking on China’s ability to resolve peninsular affairs.10 If ROK leaders held out hope from 2013–17 that Xi Jinping was tilting toward Seoul, the reality by 2022 is that he has tilted sharply toward Pyongyang. There was little reason for the earlier wishful thinking, and there is no reason to expect a reversal of this decision, given the polarization of international relations recognized by China and welcomed so long as US leadership does not yield on matters deemed essential to China’s interests and identity, e.g., Taiwan but also the Korean Peninsula. If South Korea is seen through the lens of the Korean War, it is also seen through what is clearly a renewed sense of North Korea’s importance for China—geopolitically and in historical identity.
Zero-sum ROK–US and ROK–Chinese Relations
Whether calling for more balance between Sino–South Korean and US–South Korean relations or suggesting that Seoul is reneging on assurances to that end, Chinese sources are obsessed with the triangularity in international relations.11 Smile diplomacy seeks to persuade Seoul to tilt away from the US or at least not tilt further toward the US. “Wolf warrior” warnings hint at recriminations if the balance shifts closer to the US. In the early 2020s, Chinese warnings intensified as analysts perceived just such a shift. Although they credited Moon Jae-in with resisting it, alarm over the possible election of a conservative president in 2022 was palpable. The May 2021 Moon–Biden summit drew criticism that even Moon was losing balance.
Chinese observers credit Moon with improving relations after two years in freefall, given his two main aims: to boost the South Korean economy and to advance denuclearization and peace on the peninsula. Yet he relied mainly on the US to achieve the second goal, keeping the strategic gap with China wide, as if South Korea needed China only for economic reasons and not for security reasons as well. This no longer suffices for Beijing. Given the growing strategic competition between China and the US, Seoul can no longer maintain its equal-distance diplomacy, Qi Tongxuan argues, assuming that is the present state. Qi adds that although a Sino–ROK defense and strategic dialogue occurred in October 2019, in November Seoul reached a level of agreement with the US on the “Indo-Pacific strategy.” This is explained by a small country complex, which makes Moon wary of China and stands in the way of improving bilateral ties. History has left South Korea fearful of control by a great power. Burdened by this psychology, it does not see straight. Seoul must fundamentally transform its strategic relationship with China to avoid a deterioration in relations. Otherwise, Qi warns Seoul, there is a low ceiling for relations.12
Bi Yingda praises Moon’s push for an autonomous strategy but questions what he can achieve given his simultaneous pursuit of a close South Korean–US alliance. If his strategy was correctly aimed at “peace and prosperity” on the peninsula, its biggest obstacle was not North Korea but the US, as well as domestic conservatives. Bi believes that Moon’s approach is positive for moving Sino–South Korean relations forward, but Seoul must reduce its reliance on the US for security. Real sovereign diplomacy means abandonment of THAAD, insistence on Seoul’s own right to set North Korean policy, the end of the remnants of the Cold War on the peninsula, the establishment of a new peace and cooperation order, and diplomacy prioritizing Northeast Asian multilateral cooperation. Conservatives not only leave North–South relations behind, they also freeze Sino–South Korean relations, which serves US security interests and causes South Korea to lose both balance and autonomy in foreign affairs. The article points to how Seoul can win Beijing’s approval, yet Bi doubts Moon will do much more, given the US–South Korean working group in 2020. Bi refers to US negative thinking about an end-of-war declaration and calls for a real end of the war with a new peninsular system.13
Li Nan argues that South Korea will be forced to choose between China and the US; the US will try to sever Seoul’s relationship with China in certain strategic fields. Meanwhile, North Korea will see its longstanding alliance with China as a key tool by which to hold off US pressure; tensions between China and the US will aggravate DPRK–ROK relations, each siding with its ally.14 It is this logic that prevails, leaving little room for smile diplomacy and portending harsh responses.
Moon is accused of rejecting China’s repeated calls to work together to advance denuclearization by insisting on Seoul taking the lead and pursuing trilateralism with the US. This is seen as posing a test for the South Korean–Chinese security relationship previously tested by THAAD. By equating the two, the author makes clear the intensity of China’s opposition to how Moon has dealt with Kim Jong-un, adding that THAAD deployment seriously damaged popular Chinese support for Sino–ROK relations and that antagonism could spread to this issue and damage security cooperation over the long run. Deepening Sino–US competition is seen as forcing Seoul to choose on security.
The security case against South Korea centers on its alliance with the US, US troops there, and its lack of opposition to the US regional security framework. If Moon Jae-in was given some credit for unfreezing relations with North Korea after a “lost” decade, he was faulted for not putting trust ahead of denuclearization, which is only the “exit” after cooperation has developed. One step toward that is no longer boosting South Korea’s national defense. Indeed, Moon is compared unfavorably to Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun for not opening a gap with Washington. North Korea cannot denuclearize if the alliance is strong, Gu Weijian asserts. Moon can do little because conservatives have influence over the media and public opinion. These arguments treat the ROK–US alliance and North–South relations as zero-sum; China–ROK relations are a function of them.15
Moon escaped much blame for the severe setback to North–South relations in 2019, since that was the fault of the US, and it merely exposed Seoul’s lack of autonomy.16 Seen from China, the US constrained Moon, although his weakening political base by 2021 also made it hard to proceed. In 2020–21 the fact that the pandemic led Pyongyang to close its gates and stalled diplomacy left Moon somewhat off the hook too.
As the Biden administration is seen as increasingly targeting the US–South Korea alliance against China, differences in US and South Korean strategic interests and perceptions of China create a strategic opening, some say.17 For many years, Sun Ru and Wang Fudong assert, the US–South Korea alliance was focused on the threat from North Korea. However, it is increasingly targeting China, both directly and indirectly, and has expanded from a focus on security to include economics, science and technology, regional governance, and the global order. Contending that the alliance directly impacts Chinese sovereignty and security, they argue that the decision to deploy THAAD threatens Chinese national security. Also, joint statements, which rarely mentioned China in the past, now increasingly discuss it. China has been preparing for Seoul’s further tilt toward the United States.
The joint statement at the May 2021 US–South Korea summit was the first to publicly express the two countries’ shared commitment to “preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” and made indirect references to China in its statements supporting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and a commitment to a “Free and Open Indo–Pacific.” Given Biden’s support for South Korea’s missile program, China faces a serious threat, and the alliance has become tied up in Sino–US competition over the economy and technology, supporting efforts to “decouple” from China in technological competition and to increase supply chain security. The alliance is now implicated in Sino–US strategic competition in the Asia–Pacific. South Korea supported both Obama’s “Asia–Pacific rebalance” and the Trump administration’s “Indo–Pacific strategy” and has participated in dialogues linked to the Quad, as the Biden administration shores up relations to contain China.18
Thus, Sun and Wang argue, the alliance has been drawn into Sino–US competition over the future of the world order—a values-based approach, promoting a “rules-based world order.” Far from its early focus on the Korean Peninsula, the US–South Korea alliance now touches on a multitude of issues of major concern to China. The Biden administration prioritizes multilateralism, emphasizes values-based diplomacy and international rules, and regards alliances as a useful tool in its competition with China. The focus of the alliance has broadened to reflect the United States’ great power strategy.
Cooperation on sensitive issues like Taiwan will become routine. In technology and economic fields like 5G, semiconductors, blockchain, and vaccine development, the allies will increase industrial integration and efforts to pull out of China. With regard to geopolitics in the Asia–Pacific, Seoul will become increasingly involved in Quad dialogues. Furthermore, Sun and Wang warn that US–South Korea cooperation on the world order, values, and human rights will intensify.19 It is this sort of pessimism about Seoul that underscores the warnings about “wolf warrior” responses.
Sun and Wang also note that South Korea wants to avoid being drawn into tensions and will still try to balance between the two countries. The joint statement issued at the US–South Korea summit was more restrained than that released at the US–Japan summit. Involvement in US efforts to encircle China is more subdued than that of Japan. South Korea and the United States also have different strategic interests and threat perceptions regarding China. The US regards China as its biggest competitor and seeks to encircle it, while South Korea prioritizes its own development and peninsular relations and recognizes the role China plays in its ability to achieve these objectives. Economics limits Seoul’s willingness to follow the US; South Korea is cognizant of China’s impact on peninsular relations and stability in Northeast Asia and will therefore be hesitant to lean too far toward the United States, but China must be prepared to exact a cost if the alliance oversteps China’s red lines. This is the warning that accompanies a justification for continuing to try smile diplomacy.20 Were a conservative to replace Moon, the presumption is that smile diplomacy would be dead.
The Chinese reaction to the Moon–Biden summit was decidedly negative without tipping the scales to the “wolf warrior” mode. The contents of the joint statement and the decisions taken both infuriated commentators. Taiwan was mentioned for the first time, drawing criticism. In contrast to Seoul’s argument that the main outcome was to give new life to engagement with Pyongyang, Biden’s remarks were seen as complicating resolution of denuclearization on the peninsula. Mention of human rights, as well as making denuclearization a precondition, put US sincerity in doubt. Chinese commentators strongly opposed the end to restrictions on Seoul’s missiles, seeing this as a means to achieve the US goal of putting intermediate missiles in South Korea. They believe that conservatives are now emboldened to seek the complete deployment of THAAD and reverse Moon’s “three nos” to China. Technological agreements serve to restrict China’s access. Together, these moves signify a further tilt to the US and to the containment of China. Li Yongchun insists that China cannot allow much of this. Even if this is due to US pressure, South Korea’s diplomacy has taken a dangerous step away from ambiguity in the Sino–US competition. The article ends with doubt that Sino–South Korean relations can continue in a healthy direction.21
While security captures the spotlight in recent Chinese writings about South Korea, economics also has an important place. It is no longer separate from the Sino–US rivalry, and pressure is mounting to make a deeper commitment to China and resist US appeals to consider economic security. If the security argument for not tilting more toward the US is not persuasive, the economic argument holds more promise for smile diplomacy. China has plenty of both carrots to strengthen its appeal and sticks to suggest the pain it could inflict if the US were persuasive.
A late 2020 article discusses Moon’s impact on the core agenda in Sino–ROK relations.22 Jiang Longfan asserts that Chinese specialists saw improved Sino–ROK relations as a necessary trend of historical development, but, as shown in the THAAD clash, security got in the way due to the US–ROK relationship. Relations would worsen if US missile defense plans advance, leading to a second THAAD crisis. Yet China offers BRI as a platform and seeks through social and cultural exchanges both to boost mutual goodwill and to establish a China–South Korea civilizational community (Zhonghan wenming gongtongti). In politics, security, and popular mutual trust, relations are shaky—they were badly affected before Moon took office, and he has made little difference, the article implies. Still, in economics, ties can improve a lot. That trade rose to over $313 billion in 2018, with South Korea again topping Japan as the biggest source of China’s imports, does not obviate the need for Seoul to join the BRI. After THAAD, the Sino–South Korean value gap widened, and in politics and economics the tendency to distance Seoul from China is ever clearer. However, if Seoul wants better ties, it should use the BRI as a platform to build trust, fuse economies together, and forge a community of shared culture and destiny, Jiang proposes.
South Korea’s economy has been stumbling. Jiang argues that BRI and Moon’s “New Northern Policy” and “New Southern Policy” can be linked, and Moon may be seeking a way to join. Moon has spoken of expanding regional cooperation with China, and Xi offered Moon an opportunity to join the BRI when the leaders met in Osaka in June 2019. Seoul’s decision to join the BRI would impact geopolitics, economics, and cultural identity in Northeast Asia and could open the door to a new level of Sino–ROK relations. South Korea has benefited enormously from China economically, but has caused great damage to China’s core interests. Jiang cautions that South Korea will suffer greatly if it gets entangled in great power relations. He admonishes that THAAD sanctions should have taught Seoul a lesson. Such a strong warning comes amid a clear appeal to use economic regionalism to jump start ties.23
For a time, China’s strategy seemed to shift from driving a wedge between Seoul and Tokyo to taking advantage of Trump’s retreat from economic cooperation to press for economic ties that exclude the US. China’s improvement in ties to Japan in 2018–20 may have been driven by this strategy. After the November 2020 signing of RCEP, China sought a three-way FTA with Japan and South Korea to solidify the results and oppose US global protectionism. Yet, it was aware of new caution in South Korea as well as in Japan about deepening economic interdependence on China as both focused on closer trade ties with the US. Seoul fears a three-way FTA would diminish the gains it realized through a bilateral FTA with China and also increase the competition from China’s newly rising high-tech industries. Both recognize that China seeks to create “Asian rules.” As the US pushes for close coordination with South Korea and Japan on digital rules, intellectual property rights, labor, and environmental standards, as well as a US-centered supply chain, reliance on China will decrease. Given the level of dependence on China, Seoul would be making a poor strategic choice by moving in this direction, warns Jin Xiangdan, arguing the case for economic regionalism minus the US.24
What could South Korea lose? Bilateral trade totaling well over $300 billion, with China’s imports in excess of $200 billion, is now linked to security, and the wrong choice could lead China to insist on narrowing its huge deficit and cutting back the massive flow of Chinese tourists to South Korea. There are warnings that unbalanced trade cannot be sustained, but while Trump was in power, there was hope that deep dissatisfaction in South Korea as well as Japan, marked by a search for more autonomy and ways to defend their countries’ interests, would lead them to China. Despite great opposition in the US, Moon Jae-in had sent a representative to Beijing to talk about linkages between the BRI and Seoul’s “New Southern Policy.” At the G20 meeting in June 2020, Moon reportedly told Xi that Seoul was willing to go forward together on BRI, cooperating in third markets and supporting open world markets via multilateralism. As the Trump administration demanded more of its allies, the implicit message was that China needed to explore more ways to take advantage of their quest for autonomy.25
Yan Zeyang argues that China–Japan–South Korea trilateral relations show promise for increased cooperation in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. South Korea is particularly interested in regional trade initiatives and economic cooperation, given its export-oriented economy and reliance on regional supply chains, but lacks the power to achieve this on its own. Regional supply chains, largely complementary, may become more competitive, especially as China’s rapid development drives a shift away from its traditional labor- and resource-intensive production. Yan advocates a multi-pronged approach to strengthen trilateral cooperation. The three countries should work to conclude their FTA, which will allow for deeper regional economic integration and increase their cooperation in emerging industries and technologies, including 5G, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and blockchain. This would allow the region to drive the global economy. In addition, the three countries should strengthen their mutual trust and align their strategic interests, while also seeking to resolve impediments to peace in Northeast Asia, most notably the North Korean nuclear crisis.26 In 2020 smile diplomacy had a place for Japan too, but South Korea was seen as the main target.
Bi Yingda analyzed Moon Jae-in’s efforts to adopt a more independent approach in South Korean policy toward North Korea and Northeast Asia, arguing that Moon has focused on both great power diplomacy and “Northeast Asia +” multilateral cooperation.27 Conservative administrations had taken a firm line toward North Korea, but failed, resulting in insecurity. This insecurity pushed them closer to the US, which worsened North–South relations and Sino–South Korean relations. Moon has tried to increase South Korea’s room to maneuver in developing its North Korea policy. He has also sought to decrease the influence of external states and to balance relations with various regional powers, while preserving the US–South Korean alliance. Economics beckoned as the pathway for the sort of multilateral cooperation Beijing considered easiest to achieve in the Trump period. After Biden took office, the US push for economic security left China’s plans in greater jeopardy. A more defensive approach followed with warnings of what might result if Seoul were to succumb to US appeals.
Along with pressing Seoul to agree to a regional security framework and to join the BRI, Chinese analysts are focused on prioritizing a common identity at odds with the Western identity they accuse South Koreans of embracing. Cultural affronts abound in Chinese coverage of South Korea. When in July 2014 Xi Jinping visited Seoul and Chinese judged the results highly, South Koreans were seen as critical, e.g., of his remarks on the wars with Japan, as if China wanted to forge a new anti-Japan collaboration and split Seoul from the US and Japan. Low percentages of Koreans who express affinity toward China—far lower, until THAAD, than Chinese who did not like South Korea—reflect a hostile atmosphere, Jiang Longfan asserts. Chinese warnings against THAAD deployment were taken as arrogant interference in internal affairs. Now Chinese are dissatisfied with the South Korean strategy of relying on China for economics and on the US for security, leading to opposition to the “Korean wave” in culture and to South Korean firms. If Moon, just after taking office, made big changes in foreign policy, battling with the US on host-nation support, disagreeing on how to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem and how to deal with China’s rise, and breaking with Park’s agreement with Japan, he could not soon get all sanctions removed on cultural imports. Later politicians in Seoul were offensive in their remarks. If the South Korean government yields to US pressure and becomes the front line in the US Asia strategy, China cannot stand by, Jiang insists.28
Chinese long have assumed that cultural ties have great potential. The first Confucius Institute was in Seoul, and, as of June 2021 South Korea was the country with the most of them (22 locations). No country is presumed to have a longer or closer connection to Chinese civilization. That puts a special burden on Seoul, which faces greater demands and is subject to more ominous warnings.
The Koguryo spat of 2004, the “culture wars” beginning in 2007, the cultural divide invoked when Xi’s visit to Seoul in 2014 resulted in disharmony, the cultural bans accompanying the Chinese sanctions over THAAD in 2016, and the cultural and historical offenses taken by the Chinese in 2020 over BTS and other issues all underscore the degree to which identity is at the center of Chinese reactions to South Korea. These waves of cultural clashes have left exchanges as a weak spot in relations and emotions raw, damaging mutual understanding. So-called erroneous consciousness among Korean conservatives distorts popular thinking about China, and Chinese emotions leave incidents ready to be magnified.29 This is the message widely repeated of late.
Lack of trust is a favorite Chinese mantra: China blames the US for the lack of US–DPRK trust and South Korea for the deficit in Sino–ROK trust. Economic ties are necessary but insufficient for trust; increasingly security cooperation is the touchstone for proving one’s trust. Yet, these ties do not arise in a vacuum; they depend heavily on values. Chinese analysts recognize Korean conservatives as embracing a value system much closer to that of the US, but do not see progressives as amenable to Chinese perspectives either.
The sharp contrast repeatedly drawn between conservative and progressive presidents leaves no doubt about China’s preference. There are ample warnings that domestic political changes might cause problems in Sino–ROK relations. However much conservatives may strive to keep economic ties on track, their outlook on values is considered much more antagonistic to China’s worldview.
As the clock ticked down to the March 2022 presidential election, China’s smile diplomacy continued. Chinese analysts hoped for a more autonomous South Korea that would break free of its alliance with the United States and seek closer ties with China by joining the BRI and better aligning its policies with Chinese security interests. But they recognized that their hopes were likely to be dashed if a conservative candidate were elected and, given their experience with Moon, understood that even another progressive president would bring real limitations. Hence, behind their smile, Chinese analysts bared their teeth, warning South Korea of the ill-effects of continuing its close relations with the United States while spurning China’s offers to bring South Korea along into a shared (Chinese-led) Asian future.
1. Yang Dongquan, “Kaiguo lingshou de liguo zhi zhan: tsai lun Mao Zedong yu kangmei yuanchao zhanzheng, Junshi Lishi Yanjiu, No. 1, 2021, pp. 1–20.
3. Shen Zhihua, “Cong Zhong Chao guanxi shi de jiaodu kan ‘sade’ wenti,” talk at Huadong Shifan Daxue, March 19, 2017, http://ccwihs.ecnu.edu.cn/5f/c9/c5469a90057/page.htm?from=timeline&isappinstalled=0
4. Xu Yan, “Ying chengqing dui kang Mei yuan Chao zhanzheng de yixie cuowu renshi,” Junshi Lishi, No. 6, 2020; Wen Luoshou, “Kang Mei yuan Chao zhanzheng de zhengyixing, zhengdangxing he zhengquexing,” Jingji Daokan, No. 11, 2020.
5. Dong Xiangrong, “Shared History, Divided Consciousness: The Origins of the Sino-South Korean Cultural Clash amid the Pandemic,” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., Joint U.S-Korea Academic Studies: Questioning the Pandemic’s Impact on the Indo-Pacific (Washington, DC: Korean Economic Institute, 2021), pp. 223-25.
6. Shen Wenhui and Liu Jialin, “Guojia zizhuxing yu Moon Jae-in zhengfu de dui Chao zhengce,” Yanbian Daxue Xuebao, November 2020.
8. Cheng Xiaohe, “US-DPRK Relations and China’s Resoonse in the Biden Era,” The Asan Forum, December 30, 2020.
9. Zhang Chi, “Chaoxian bandao jushi fazhan qianzhan yu Zhongguo de zuoyong,” Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, No. 1, 2020.
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