(Yonhap Feature) S Korea-China-fence mending
SEOUL, Nov. 22 (Yonhap) -- When Xu Jingbo, a Chinese journalist and active blogger, visited the South Korean southern port city of Busan five years ago, he felt that the South Korea-China relationship had reached its best state since the two countries formally established diplomatic ties in 1992, putting their history of conflict in the 1950-53 Korean War behind them.
Xu's trip to Seoul this month, his second visit to South Korea, painted a different picture, however. The neighboring countries were trying to shake off the aftermath of a major diplomatic feud over the development of U.S. defense system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea -- a disagreement that had lasted for more than a year .
"Chinese tourists crowded around major tourist spots with eagerness to learn about Busan and South Korea, and South Koreans were equally welcoming to Chinese tourists at that time," the 54 year-old Xu said in Seoul, comparing his latest trip to the one he made five years ago. "Chinese people's favorable feelings toward South Korea may have reached a peak, thanks to the influence of the Korean Wave and an increase in Chinese travel here back then."
But in the aftermath of THAAD, South Korea-China relations tumbled to their worst point in the countries' 25 years of diplomatic ties, bringing government-to-government exchanges and Chinese tourist visits to South Korea virtually to a standstill.
Xu traveled to South Korea along with 13 other Chinese journalists and influential blog writers as part of the Korea Foundation's public diplomacy program to invite "Wanghong," a new Chinese term for internet celebrities wielding influence in forming public opinion in China, to the country. Many of those invited have more than one million readers on their accounts on Weibo, a popular Chinese micro-blogging website.
Xu and the others' trip was one of the very first personnel exchange programs designed to warm up the long-frozen South Korea-China relationship after the Moon Jae-in and Xi Jinping governments reached an agreement to end the feud Oct. 31.
"The South Korean visit by the Weibo stars who play an important role in forming China's public opinion has a symbolic meaning as a sign of fence-mending between the two countries after the THAAD conflict paralyzed their relationship," KF President Lee Si-hyung said.
In their six-day visit in early November, the tour group met with South Korean diplomats to discuss Seoul's China policy and bilateral relations. They also had a meeting with four-term lawmaker Park Byeong-seug of the ruling Democratic Party, who is currently a member of the National Assembly's foreign affairs and unification committee.
The group also toured a major entertainment production company and a giant consumer electronics maker.
The last part of their trip was to Pyeongchang, an alpine town close to the east coast and host of the 2018 Winter Olympics, where they toured the main stadium and the slope for the ski jump competition before enjoying a trip to a nearby Buddhist temple.
"Throughout our itinerary here, I hope I can find out what expectations Koreans have for the Korea-China relationship ... and I want to help remove any misunderstanding about China if there is any," said Xu, the president of the Japan-based Asian News Agency and operator of popular Chinese-language microblogs.
"The Chinese think highly of the South Korean government's move to improve relations with China by announcing its plans not to seek three things," Xu said, referring to Seoul's pledges made ahead of its fence-mending agreement with China. It said it will not host additional THAAD batteries, enter a trilateral military alliance with the U.S. and Japan, nor join U.S.-led missile defense networks.
"As the THAAD feud comes to an end, Korea and China will recover their full-fledged ties and Chinese tourists will also come back to Korea," he said.
Yan Lieshan, a 65-year-old former journalist who now runs a widely read Weibo blog critical of the government, also shared this upbeat outlook. "I think the media coverage of the THAAD feud so far has been somewhat exaggerated. Even amid it, Korean dramas and entertainers have still been watched and loved and individual Chinese travelers continued to visit the country," he said.
The THAAD rift badly hurt the South Korean tourist industry, which is largely dependent on travelers from China, as well as Korean businesses operating in China, and it brought government and partly private-level exchanges to a sudden halt.
The Oct. 31 agreement unleashed a wave of quick fence-mending gestures between the two countries. Moon and Xi held a summit meeting on Nov. 11 in Vietnam's Danang on the sidelines of a regional forum and reaffirmed their will to quickly restore the bilateral relationship. It led to Moon's decision to visit China in December.
On Wednesday, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha is to meet with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, one day after He Yiting, executive vice president of the Communist Party of China, arrived in South Korea to inform the government of the outcome of the party's October congress.
Some tour agencies in China recently started to sell package tours to South Korea, which marks a turnaround from China's ban on sales of group tours to Korea imposed in March in the height of the THAAD feud.
In the aftermath of a series of economic retaliations, including the tourist ban, South Korea's deficit in the tourism account is expected to reach a record high of US$15 billion.
Lotte Mart shut down 87 of its 112 discount stores and supermarkets in China after its mother company Lotte Group was boycotted for providing its provincial golf course as a site for the THAAD deployment. Having suffered massive losses, the discount store chain is in the process of finding a new owner for its Chinese businesses.
"It's positive that there has been some signs detected of improving Korea-China relations ... but we are watching the situation closely, as it is too early to picture the future," a Lotte Group official who requested anonymity said.
Industry sources predict Chinese group tours to Korea may return to normal sometime after February next year when China celebrates a long and lavish lunar New Year holiday.