Ialready Shopkeepers around Gyeongbokgung Palace have had a hard time the past few years. Gyeongbokgung Palace, once the seat of the Joseon Dynasty in South Korea, is now the most famous tourist attraction in Seoul. Six million Chinese tourists visited South Korea in 2019, filling the cash registers of local restaurants and rental shops in the South Korean capital Hanbok (Korean traditional clothes, tourists pose inside the palace as if in their favorite historical drama). Affected by the epidemic, the number of visits from Chinese people is almost zero. So when the Beijing government abruptly dropped its draconian lockdown and strict restrictions on foreign travel, the Chinese snapped up plane tickets to South Korea. Expectations for Seoul soared. Now, the dispute between the two countries has put the hopes of Chinese tourists and shopkeepers on hold.
South Korea late last year mandated negative tests for travelers from China before and after arrival, amid concerns about the Chinese government’s reluctance to release accurate covid-19 data and fears of new outbreaks sparked by Chinese tourists. (Like much of East Asia during the pandemic, South Korea follows strict visa controls and quarantine requirements.) It then stopped issuing short-term visas to Chinese nationals on Jan. 2. This week, China responded in kind, even refusing to issue transit visas to South Koreans who were merely transiting through South Korea.
South Korean Prime Minister Han Duk-soo insisted with feigned bravery that China’s decision was not “retaliation”. China disagrees. A government spokesman condemned “discriminatory entry restrictions” and described the country’s actions as a “reciprocal measure”. When South Korea corrects its behavior, China’s measures will be “adjusted” accordingly.
Japan has taken similar steps. But dozens of other countries that have imposed travel restrictions on travelers from China have managed to avoid becoming such targets. China, Japan and South Korea have complicated and often troubled histories. South Korea and Japan are used to spending time in the doghouse without bending to China’s will. For South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took power in May, the spell may be a probe of weakness.
All South Korean presidents tread carefully. The United States guarantees national security. But China, South Korea’s largest trading partner, has ensured South Korea’s prosperity. It is difficult to please both countries at the same time. Mr Yin has moved closer to the US on security and economic issues, but also wants a relationship with China based on “mutual respect”. China itself uses the phrase a lot when it comes to tough deals with smaller countries. The tit-for-tat visa restrictions suggest that it considers South Korea’s respect insufficient and unquestionable.
China has previously banned tourists from entering the country. In 2016, when South Korea agreed to deploy a U.S. missile defense system, the Chinese government launched a (largely undisclosed) consumer boycott of South Korean companies. Tour groups are banned from traveling to South Korea. When the pandemic hit, the ban remained in place.
South Korean analysts believe China is trying to test Mr Yin’s mettle. South Korea has been quietly seeking to divert supply chains for key industries such as semiconductors and batteries away from its domineering neighbor. The Chinese government has taken note and warned South Korea not to “decouple”.
Mr. Yin hopes to reap the benefits by not making concessions. Despite the loss of tourism, South Koreans seem happy to avoid any possible outbreaks (more than a fifth of tourists from China have tested positive). More broadly, recent opinion polls point to growing dissatisfaction with China. Stories such as a Chinese national who escaped a quarantine facility on January 3 and was arrested two days later did not help. Tit-for-tat restrictions may end soon. But Mr Yin is sure to face other tests in the future. ■
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