By Park Jae-hyuk
Beijing's economic retaliation against Seoul's decision to allow the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile system here has prompted anti-China sentiment among Koreans.
According to the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, Monday, China has become Koreans' least preferred country after North Korea. Until last year, Japan had been awarded the dubious honor due to disputes over its wartime sexual slavery of Korean women.
The private think tank's survey showed that Koreans' preference for China has plunged since last August when the government officially signed a deal to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery here.
Since then, Beijing has begun to take retaliatory steps, including higher trade barriers against Korean companies, a de facto ban on Chinese tour agencies from offering group tours to Korea and restrictions on cultural content.
Although it officially denied the existence of the retaliation, the Chinese government has enhanced its measures — especially against Lotte Group after the retail giant offered a golf course as a site for the THAAD battery.
Lotte, which had faced sudden safety inspections in China last year, has had to close more than 80 percent of its Lotte Mart outlets in China because of the Chinese government's orders and anti-Lotte protests in front of the stores.
Korea's fifth-largest conglomerate is expected to suffer more than 90 billion won ($80 million) in losses from the retaliation, but it has continued to dismiss concerns about its possible exit from the Chinese market.
"Most respondents thought negatively of the powerful neighbor's interference in Korean affairs," said Dr. Kim Ji-yoon of the institute. "Even those who oppose the THAAD deployment are critical of China's recent measures."
While the Korean government has hesitated in taking countermeasures, consumers have begun to express their displeasure.
More Koreans as well as schools have canceled their scheduled trips to China, so Korea's leading home shopping channels — GS Home Shopping, CJ O Shopping and NS Home Shopping — halted sales of tour packages this month.
Some even demanded Korean consumers boycott Chinese products, such as Tsingtao Beer and Xiaomi battery chargers. They welcomed the disappearance of Chinese tourists from Seoul's Myeong-dong shopping district as well.
But still, businesspeople criticize the government for its passive stance on China's hostile measures after Finance Minister Yoo Il-ho failed to have talks with his Chinese counterpart Xiao Jie at the Group of 20 finance ministers meeting in Germany last week.
In response to the criticism, Trade Minister Joo Hyung-hwan said the government officially raised the issue with the World Trade Organization last Friday.