SEOUL — The list of election issues set to define South Korea’s presidential race next year is long. The runaway housing prices, the pandemic, North Korea and gender inequality are a start. But an unlikely addition has also emerged in recent weeks: China.
South Korea’s decision to let the American military deploy a powerful antimissile radar system on its soil in 2017 has been the subject of frequent criticism from China. And last month, a presidential hopeful, Yoon Seok-youl, told the country to stop complaining, unless it wanted to remove its own radar systems near the Korean Peninsula.
Political elites here are usually careful not to antagonize China, the country’s largest trading partner. But Mr. Yoon’s blunt rhetoric reflected a new phenomenon: a growing antipathy toward Beijing among South Koreans, particularly young voters whom conservative politicians are eager to win over.
Anti-Chinese sentiment has grown so much this year that China has replaced Japan — the former colonial ruler — as the country regarded most unfavorably in South Korea, according to a joint survey by the polling company Hankook Research and the Korean newsmagazine SisaIN. In the same survey, South Koreans said they favored the United States over China six to one.
Over 58 percent of the 1,000 respondents called China “close to evil” while only 4.5 percent said that it was “close to good.”
Negative views of China have deepened in other advanced countries as well, but among the 14 nations surveyed last year by Pew Research Center, South Korea was the only one in which younger people held more unfavorable views toward China than previous generations.
“Until now, hating Japan was such a part of Korean national identity that we have a common saying: You know you are a real Korean when you feel hateful toward Japan for no particular reason,” said Jeong Han-wool, a chief analyst at Hankook Research. “In our survey, people in their 40s and older still disliked Japan more than China. But those in their 20s and 30s, the generation who will lead South Korea in the coming decades, tipped the scale against China.”
South Korea elects its next president in March, and observers are watching closely to see how younger people vote on the country’s policy toward Beijing.
Conservatives in South Korea have called anything less than full-throated support of the alliance with Washington “pro-North Korean” and “pro-Chinese.” Progressives usually support reconciliation with North Korea and calls for diplomatic “autonomy” between the United States and China. Younger South Koreans have traditionally voted progressive, but millennials are breaking that pattern, and possibly turning into swing voters.
“We feel frustrated when we see our government act spineless while Beijing behaves like a bully,” said Chang Jae-min, a 29-year-old voter in Seoul. “But we also don’t want too much tension with China or North Korea.”
For decades, South Korea has benefited from a military alliance with the United States while cultivating trade ties with China to fuel economic growth. But that balance has become increasingly difficult to maintain as relations between Washington and Beijing deteriorate.
President Moon Jae-in’s conservative rivals, like Mr. Yoon, have complained that South Korea’s ambiguous policy on the United States and China made the country the “weakest link” in the American-led coalition of democracies working to confront Chinese aggression.
“We cannot remain ambiguous,” Mr. Yoon told JoongAng Ilbo, a South Korean daily, last month during an interview in which he made his critical remarks about China.
The conservative opposition has long accused Mr. Moon of being “pro-China.” His government has maintained that South Korea — like other American allies, including those in Europe — should avoid alienating either power. While South Koreans overwhelmingly support the alliance with Washington, the country’s trade with China is almost as big as its trade with the United States, Japan and the European Union combined.
“We cannot pick sides,” Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong has said.
Yet when Mr. Moon met with President Biden in Washington in May, the two leaders emphasized the importance of preserving “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” and vowed to make their alliance “a linchpin for the regional and global order.” Many analysts saw the statement as a sign that South Korea was aligning itself more closely with Washington at the risk of irritating China, which has called Taiwan a red line.
The main conservative opposition, the People Power Party, has already begun harnessing young voters’ anti-China sentiment to secure electoral wins.
In April, young voters helped deliver landslide victories for the party in the mayoral races in South Korea’s two largest cities. Last month, the party’s young leader, Lee Jun-seok, 36, said his fellow South Korean millennials would fight against Chinese “cruelty” in places like Hong Kong and Xinjiang, where China has been accused of genocide.
Older Koreans, while often anti-Communist, tend to respect Chinese culture, which influenced the Korean Peninsula for millenniums. They have also looked upon the country as a benign giant whose rapid economic growth was a boon for South Korean exporters. Younger South Koreans tend not to share that perspective.
Most of them grew up proud of their homegrown economic and cultural successes. And as China’s foreign policy became more assertive under President Xi Jinping, they began to see the country’s authoritarianism as a threat to free society. They have also been critical of China’s handling of the coronavirus, its expansionism in the South China Sea and fine-dust pollution from China that regularly blankets Seoul.
“They have grown up in a liberal environment the earlier generations built through sweat and blood, so they hold an inherent antipathy toward illiberal countries,” said Ahn Byong-jin, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. “They root for politicians who criticize China.”
Nowhere has South Korea’s dilemma between Washington and Beijing been magnified more dramatically than over the deployment of the American antimissile radar, known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD.
When South Korean officials agreed to the deployment, they called it a necessity in defending against North Korea. China saw it as part of a continuing threat from the United States military presence in the region, and retaliated by curbing tourism to South Korea and boycotting the country’s cars, smartphones, shopping malls and TV shows.
Ha Nam-suk, a professor of Chinese politics and economy at the University of Seoul, has monitored how deepening animosity toward Beijing has played out on and off campuses in recent years, as cash-starved South Korean universities began accepting more Chinese students.
South Korean and Chinese students clashed over whether to support young pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, he said. They have also gotten into spats online over K-pop and kimchi. In March, many young South Koreans forced a TV station to cancel a drama series after it showed an ancient Korean king dining on Chinese dumplings.
“As they watched what China did in places like Hong Kong,” Mr. Ha said, “Koreans began asking themselves what it would be like to live under a greater sphere of Chinese influence.”