As South Korea’s March 9 presidential election approaches, leading candidates are aligning themselves with the US-led war campaign against China by stoking anti-China sentiment. This serves to deflect growing domestic tensions outward, as neither candidate has progressive solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic or the social crisis facing the working class.
During the recently concluded Winter Olympics in Beijing, South Korean politicians took particular notice of two incidents. The first took place during the opening ceremony of the Games on February 4. During the raising of the Chinese flag, people dressed in various traditional clothes from China’s 56 ethnic groups participated, including a woman dressed in a Korean hanbok. The second incident involved the disqualification of two South Korean speed skaters in an event in which Chinese skaters won gold and silver medals.
The main presidential candidates – Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DP) and Yoon Seok-youl of the main right-wing opposition People Power Party (PPP) – have denounced China on these two Questions.
Lee, for example, wrote on Facebook shortly after the opening ceremony in response to the woman wearing the hanbok: “Don’t covet (other people’s) culture. Oppose cultural appropriation. His campaign accused China of “stealing” Korean culture.
In response to this fabricated outrage, the Chinese Embassy in Seoul issued a statement on February 8, stating, “It is their desire and their right that representatives of every ethnic group in China attend an international sports competition and Beijing’s major national event. Winter Olympics, dressed in their traditional costumes. About two million ethnic Koreans live in China.
On the same day, Christopher Del Corso, US charge d’affaires in South Korea, sought to further inflame tensions by writing on Twitter: “What comes to mind when you think of Korea? Kimchi, K-Pop, K-dramas…and of course Hanbok,” using the hashtag #OriginalHanbokFromKorea. He posted photos of himself wearing the garment.
There’s more to this case than just a woman’s dress at the Olympics or lost medals. There are considerable monetary interests from the packaging of music, art, culture, and sports by the South Korean government and the entertainment industry for public consumption overseas. Much of it is tasteless, glorifies the wealthy elite, and does little to educate people about real Korean life and culture.
However, in an indication of the deeper problems of Korean nationalism, PPP’s Yoon criticized China during a Feb. 5 appearance, saying, “The kingdoms of Goguryeo and Balhae are our proud and glorious history.
The kingdom of Goguryeo, which developed around 2,000 years ago, and its successor Balhae, occupied the northern part of the Korean peninsula as well as parts of what is now part of China, southern Manchuria . The history of these two kingdoms is often concealed, altered or outright falsified in Seoul in order to meet contemporary political needs, a “tradition” that dates back to the activities of Japanese historians during the colonial period.
By referring to these two kingdoms, Yoon is essentially stating that parts of Manchuria are Korean territory. This fits perfectly with the ongoing US war campaign targeting China that seeks to restore the country to semi-colonial status while cutting off territories such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet. If the disagreement over Manchuria has not reached the levels of tension over these other regions, it cannot be ruled out that it could be exploited by the United States with its ally South Korea to stir up divisions at the interior of China.
Yoon ran an openly anti-China campaign, making it clear that he would get even closer to Washington. Speaking Dec. 28 at an event hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in South Korea, Yoon criticized Moon for being insufficiently anti-China. “The current government has used biased policies towards China, but most South Koreans, especially younger ones, don’t like China.” The Moon administration, Yoon continued, “tried to act as a middleman between the United States and China, but it ended up in bad relations.”
Yoon has pledged to install additional US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries in South Korea. The first battery was deployed in 2017 in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province. Contrary to US and South Korean claims, the battery is not intended to protect the population from a supposed North Korean attack, but is part of the Pentagon’s anti-missile systems in the Indo-Pacific in preparation for a war with China. Seongju Battery’s range does not even cover the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area.
After the 2017 deployment, China, which had expressed concern over encroachment by the US anti-ballistic missile system, responded with economic restrictions on South Korean companies, increasing tensions between Beijing and Seoul. The deployment of any additional battery will only heighten tensions between the two countries.
Democrat Lee tries to present himself as an opponent of this program, aware of the broad anti-war sentiment in South Korea. Lee claimed in a Feb. 23 article titled “A Practical Vision for South Korea” in Foreign Affairs that Seoul’s approach to China should include “a mix of deterrence, diplomacy and dialogue”.
Lee speaks on behalf of sections of the South Korean ruling class that have close economic ties with China and view the tensions as a hindrance to their profits. “South Korea must…maintain a partnership with China, which is the country’s largest trading partner, accounting for a quarter of South Korea’s trade volume,” he wrote.
Lee also made it clear that he supported Washington while criticizing Beijing’s “increasingly assertive behavior”. He claimed, “The Biden administration’s ‘calibrated and practical’ approach to North Korea has emphasized this approach (towards diplomacy).” It comes at a time when Washington has brought Europe dangerously to the brink of World War III in its confrontation with Russia over Ukraine.
In China’s denunciations, both candidates made it clear that they supported South Korea’s alliance with the United States and backed the Biden administration’s reckless confrontation with China. In doing so, they put the South Korean people on the front line of any conflict.