By Kim Tae-gyu
Anti-Chinese sentiment has begun simmering under the surface in South Korea after the world’s second largest economy appears to be taking sides with North Korea in the aftermath of a deadly attack earlier this week.
Pyongyang admitted to firing over a hundred shells at the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, Tuesday, which killed two marines and two civilians — more than a dozen others were injured in the attack.
Seoul asked Beijing, which has a big influence on the North, to play a role in criticizing North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, but to little avail. China just said the two nations should remain cool and hold talks.
Worse, China caused a public uproar after its Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi postponed indefinitely his planned visit to Seoul on Friday, while lashing out at a South Korea-U.S. military exercise in the West Sea.
“What if the North launches a nuclear missile at Seoul? China would say that both nations need to settle problems through talks while turning a blind eye to the assault,” an Internet user posted on a news site.
Local newspapers and broadcasters also came up with negative articles on China’s attitude.
“As a big country, China lacks a sense of responsibility although it is the only one able to control the North,” the Chosun Ilbo, one of Korea’s most conservative dailies, said in its editorial.
On top of conservative media, neutral voices also criticized the Chinese approach, which they contend was advocating the North even after the communist regime killed innocent civilians.
Negative opinions on China have continued to increase here ever-since the start of its Northeast Project in the early and mid 2000s.
The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences carried out multi-million dollar projects from 2002 through 2006 in order to claim Korea’s ancient kingdoms to be its own states, generating a public backlash here.
Beijing channeled millions of dollars into the five-year project, which produced anti-Chinese sentiment that some label as “Sinophobia.”
Additionally, China reportedly planned to create a Korean-language inputting system for mobile phones, angering South Koreans even more. The governing Grand National Party has also shown a negative response.
According to the Pew Research Center, a U.S. think tank, favorable views of China in Korea fell from 66 percent in 2002 to 38 percent this year. By contrast, unfavorable views jumped from 31 percent in 2002 to 56 percent.
The East Asia Institute came up with similar results that a majority of South Koreans see China’s impact on the two Koreas as negative.
“China tends to buttress North Korea to check a three-way alliance involving South Korea, the United States and Japan. Even though China is one of our major trade partners, our people appear to worry about the country’s one-sided support for the North,” EAI researcher Seo Sang-min said.
“The Northeast Project resulted in anti-Chinese sentiment and this is feared to get worse in the wake of the latest attack. If China fails to offer constructive ideas to stabilize the relationship between the two Koreas, things will be identical in the future.”
Market watchers point out that the anti-Chinese sentiment may increase further because Seoul has always taken a low-key approach towards the country, its No. 1 trading partner.
Such a low-profile attitude was strengthened due to incidents in the early 2000s.
During the Kim Dae-jung administration, Korea cranked up tariffs on Chinese garlic from 30 percent to 315 percent to protect Korean farmers from cheap imports.
A week later, Beijing countered by banning imports of Korean cell phones. Seoul immediately backed off, cutting the tariffs after quick negotiations with Beijing.
After the conflict, experts say that South Korea has avoided a head-on collision with China because it realized that the playing field was not level whatever the latter does.
북한의 연평도 공격에도 불구하고 중국이 북한을 감싸고 돌자 한국에서 반한감정이 일고 있는 것으로 보인다. 특히 중국 외무장관의 방한을 무기한 연기하고 서해상의 한미 합동훈련에 거북한 반응을 보이면서 상황이 더욱 악화되고 있다.
이번 화요일 연평도 공격 이후에도 중국은 양국이 냉정을 지키고 대화를 해야한다고 지적하자 한 네티즌은 “중국은 북한이 남한에 핵폭탄을 쏘아도 양국이 냉정을 유지하고 대화를 하라고 할 것”이라고 꼬집었다.
보수적 색채를 띤 조선일보는 중국이 동북이 대국으로서 책임의식이 부족하다고 지적했고 중도신문들 또한 중국에 비판적인 자세를 보이고 있다.
사실 반중감정은 중국이 2002년부터 2006까지 벌였던 동북공정 이후 악화되어 왔다. 미국 퓨연구소에 따르면 한국에서 중국에 대한 긍정적인 의견을 가진 사람이 2002년 66%에서 올해 38%로 줄어들었다. 반면 부정적 의견은 같은 기간 동안 31%에서 56%로 늘어났다.
동아시아 연구소도 과반수 이상의 한국인이 중국의 한반도 영향력에 대해 부정적인 입장을 가지고 있다는 서베이 결과를 내 놓았다. 연구소의 중국 담당 서상민 연구원에 따르면 “중국이 한국-미국-일본의 삼각동맹을 견제할 목적으로 지속적으로 북한을 지원하자 남한에서 반중감정이 형성되는 것 같다”고 한다.
관계자들은 한국 정부의 대중 저자세 외교도 문제라고 주장한다. 2000년 김대중 정부 때 마늘파동 이후 무역 피해를 염려한 한국 정부가 중국에 대해 지나치게 저자세로 대한다는 주장이다.