By Lee Hyo-sik
Lotte Group has been forced to suspend the construction of its theme park in northeastern China, the latest in a series of retaliatory steps against Korea's decision to deploy a U.S. anti-missile defense system.
Korea's fifth-largest conglomerate has been the main target of the reprisal for its decision to provide a golf course as the site for a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery.
The Chinese government ordered Lotte last December to stop building the Lotte World Theme Park near its department store and cinema in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, according to Lotte officials Wednesday.
They said the authorities took issue with the construction site's preparedness for fire emergencies.
The conglomerate has been undertaking a 3 trillion won ($2.6 billion) project to create the so-called Lotte Town in downtown Shenyang.
It plans to build a shopping mall, a hotel, a theme park and a residential complex on a 160,000 square-meter site.
A department store and a movie theater have already opened and Lotte wants to complete the construction of the remaining facilities by 2018.
"The Lotte Town project has been halted since late last year," a Lotte Group official said. "The Chinese government ordered us to suspend the project, calling our fire safety preparedness inadequate. This could be motivated by China's anti-THAAD campaign. But the thing is we have not suffered any tangible damage from it."
It is normal for construction work to halt temporarily during the winter in northeastern China, due to cold weather, according to the official.
"We are working hard to resume the project in March when the weather gets warmer," the official said.
Since 1994 when Lotte first entered the world's most populous country, it has invested more than 10 trillion won there. The group's 22 units, including Lotte Confectionary, Lotte Mart and Lotte Department Store, operate a total of 120 business sites and employ 26,000 Chinese workers.
Among Korean businesses, Lotte has become a primary target of China's campaign against Korea's THAAD deployment since last November when the conglomerate decided to swap Lotte Skyhill Country Club in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province, for military-owned land in Namyangju, Gyeonggi Province.
Lotte International, which owned the golf club, has said it will sign a land-swap contract with the Ministry of National Defense as soon as its board of directors approves the deal.
However, it is widely expected to draw a fiercer backlash from China, making it more difficult for Lotte to conduct business in the world's second-largest economy.
The Chinese government has taken retaliatory steps against Lotte Group operations, including unusual tax audits and fire inspections.