“Chinese tourists are the [country’s] army,” one commentator on a television talk show recently quipped—and he wasn’t far wrong. The discussion was about how South Korea had fallen out of favour with Chinese travellers. Last year, it was the top international destination for the week-long May holidays; 12 months on, it had slid to tenth place.
The big plunge is because of South Korea’s embrace of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence). Developed by the United States, it is a land-based system of rocket launchers mounted on trucks, which tracks and intercepts short- and medium-range missiles—like those Kim Jong-un has been testing in North Korea. THAAD’s radar detects an incoming threat and launches its own missile to destroy it high in the sky. The warhead-free projectile uses the force of its energy to destroy its target.
During a test on 29th May, the North Koreans fired a rocket into the Sea of Japan, an area active with fishing boats and cargo. So the nerves in the South Korean capital, Seoul, are natural enough. And if Kim Jong-un manages to develop long-range missiles, even the US could be at risk.
In September, the US did a deal to deploy THAAD in South Korea, with—it says—the sole purpose of defending the country from its northern neighbour. China, however, looks at its backyard and sees a direct impingement on its security. It claims, too, that the system allows the US to spy on China’s weapons programme. When the launchers began arriving in March, Beijing summoned its civilian army—the new middle class—to war. Consumers must become “the main force in teaching Seoul a lesson,” said the state-owned Global Times, adding “we’d better make it hurt.”
China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, so it can certainly hurt the country’s economy. At the same time as calling for a public boycott, the Chinese tourism ministry ordered travel companies in Beijing to stop selling group tours, later extending that ban to all of China. The Korea Economic Research Institute predicts that China’s actions will cost South Korea 8.5 trillion won (US $7.6bn) in 2017.
Korean-owned supermarket Lotte Mart owns the land on which THAAD will be deployed. The company says it was ordered to offer up the land but in China, it has now been scapegoated. A few months ago, Lotte Mart had 100 stores there, but now less than 20 are still in operation; 67 have been shut for “safety” reasons. Beijing denies this is political retaliation. But in March the largely state-controlled media was awash with reports of anti-THAAD demonstrations. Middle-aged women were shown protesting in front of Lotte, while young children were heard chanting “Lotte get out of China!” Then there were the attention-seekers: a woman live-streamed herself ripping up cereal boxes in Lotte and eating the contents while giggling. How much of this is genuine? It is hard to say.
What’s sure is that the Chinese are fond of South Korea. Seoul is a two-hour flight from Beijing: closer than Shanghai. Korean cosmetics and fashion are held in high esteem by Chinese women. There is little history of conflict, and none of the “mortal enemy” sentiment that has warped relations with Japan since the Sino-Japanese War.
Perhaps as a result, the row is still about tightening purse-strings rather than using fists. In contrast, back in 2012 during a territorial dispute with Tokyo over the Diaoyu Islands, government-backed protests got out of hand. Buildings were trashed, crowds clashed with the police, and in Xi’an, a man driving a Toyota was severely beaten.
I’ve yet to come across anyone who is genuinely angry about THAAD. Sure, the Chinese will think twice about buying South Korean products. Hyundai cars no longer look like a smart purchase. My neighbour kept her recent Korean trip on the down-low, just in case. But, “Those who buy Korea still buy Korean,” she says.
The government’s propaganda department enlisted a hip-hop band to shake the young out of such apathy. CD REV recently released the song “No to THAAD,” in which the band members stand in front of the Forbidden City and the Bird’s Nest stadium. “Your big brother [America] is annoyed, try-na avoid the sight of me and install a camera in my room… This time kid [South Korea] you going too far.” In the chorus, the lyrics are “No, no, no, to Thaad.”
There is pressure at home in South Korea too. Ahead of the May elections, protests erupted as South Koreans became anxious about THAAD itself becoming a target. In early June, the recently elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced a halt on deployment pending a review, which could take a year.
So South Korean travel and consumerism are set for a revival. As for my generation, our love affair with K-pop and Korean television dramas wasn’t going to stop just because someone told us to ditch it. Take Loraina, a family friend, who works in property and is in her late thirties. She regularly flies to Seoul for Botox refills on her chin—to make it pointier. The propaganda department was never going to ruin her look.