SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The 2022 Winter Olympics are underway in Beijing, among the nation's closest foreign capitals at just some 950 km from Seoul, four years after South Korea hosted the PyeongChang Games in Gangwon Province.
Sixty-four Korean athletes are competing on snow and ice with the modest goal of ranking 15th or 16th in the medal standing. Famous movie director Zhang Yimou used a lot of his genius and high technology to add a landmark in the ongoing rise of China, but the opening ceremony Friday (Feb 4) night at the "Bird's Nest" stadium surprised spectators around the world not because of great spectacles but because of their absence.
Most impressive was the torch on top of a 60cm stick lighting the site in the middle of a giant snowflake, which turned out to be the smallest Olympic cauldron in history.
We don't know if the tiny flame was part of a scenario to show the world, now wary of China's hunger for regional and global hegemony, 1.5 billion Chinese in pursuit for peace as a single unit of the global community, or it revealed the artist's conscience envisioning the future of his country offering light rather than boasting power. Whatever the true intent, South Korean spectators were sceptical of the symbolism and its effect.
Reluctant to admit, South Koreans today, the majority of them, do not like the Chinese in general. In an opinion poll last year by the Kookmin Daily-Global Research, 51.7 per cent of South Koreans picked China as the least favoured nation in the world, 31.2 per cent named Japan, 10.7 per cent North Korea and 2.2 per cent the US. The rate was even higher at 60 per cent among people 18 to 24 years old.
The reason: Sinocentrism, Communist Party dictatorship, controlled press, oppression in occupied territories, public rowdiness, imitation products, etc.
Early scenes of the Winter Olympics include unpleasant episodes such as a row over Korea's traditional costume, the hanbok, worn by a Chinese girl in the stadium as the attire of a minority race and a barrage of name-calling hurled on social media at the flag bearer of the South Korean delegation who warned of possible partiality in Games proceedings.
Pollsters said that doing the biggest damage to the Korea-China relations was the Beijing authorities' harsh reaction to South Korea's introduction of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system six years ago and Chinese civilians' show of antagonism in that matter.
"Korea limitation order," an unwritten ordinance by the Chinese authorities, has broadly affected the trade, tourism and entertainment business between the two countries. The Chinese insisted that the THAAD deployment was aimed at containing China despite Seoul's explanation that its detection capability was so adjusted as to scan no significant part of China.
What happened immediately afterward was a drastic fall in orders of South Korean automobiles and other imports, the disappearance of South Korean products from supermarket shelves and massive cancellation of tours to this country.
South Korean consumer outlets and factories were suddenly subjected to harsh hygienic and fire prevention checkups which forced them into temporary and permanent closures.
The Lotte Supermarket chain closed 75 out of its total 99 locations across China within a couple of years. The Chinese-style "limitations" began to be eased little by little when South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa stated "three No's" in regards to the THAAD system in the country.
In the self-restraint measure taken late in 2017, Seoul assured China there would be no additional introduction of THAAD batteries into South Korea, no participation in the US' regional missile defence system and no affiliation in any form of trilateral military alliance with the US and Japan. It was the Moon administration's virtual capitulation to Beijing's well-coordinated economic sanction. The government even gave up filing a suit with the World Trade Organisation.
South Koreans cannot approve of their government's low posture before Beijing with official excuses that the guardian of Pyongyang can play a role in the ongoing denuclearisation process with North Korea.
On his state visit to Beijing in December 2017, Moon said in his address at Beijing University that South Korea "is a small country that is willing to join in the dream of the big China," a remark that seriously hurt the average Korean's pride.
Occasional incidents such as Chinese security guards' assault on members of the press corps accompanying President Moon and the reported neglect by the hosts in serving the Korean delegation who accompanied the Beijing visit the president's first foreign trip. Still, the government went ahead with the "three No's."
Since diplomatic normalisation in 1992, ties between the two Korean War adversaries have been "upgraded" from a plain "friendly cooperative relationship" to "collaborative partnership for the 21st century" (1998) to "comprehensive cooperative partnership" (2003), to "strategic cooperative partnership" (2008) and to "enriched strategic partnership" (2014).
But psychological distance between the two peoples has widened as China's audacity grew with its economic advancement. It is rather natural that opposition presidential candidate Yoon Seok-youl is proclaiming additional THAAD deployment if he becomes president along with open renouncement of the three No's policy, which he termed humiliating and as causing a risk to our defence readiness. He knows this helps him collect more votes.
To mark the 30th anniversary of diplomatic normalisation with China, the two countries had designated 2022 as the Year of Cultural Exchanges. Perhaps in belated recognition of the long-term negative impact of their excessive response in the THAAD affair, the Chinese authorities recently allowed the showing of a Korean movie in cinemas, nearly seven years after the last one.
China has been in transition in all aspects of society as rapidly as South Korea over the past century, but democratic development over there remained tardy and the human rights situation has drawn international concerns to Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Hong Kong.
The Chinese reality of social control was vividly exposed in the civil response involving the THAAD deployment in South Korea. As a whole, we are seeing in China the trace of Third World absurdities of the past era. In spite of its remarkable growth in gross domestic product and seeming political stability, respect for individual rights remains shallow, as does state-level conscience in China.
Unless these invisible things have visibly improved, China cannot assert global leadership, and its neighbours will continue to fight its bullying.
- Kim Myong-sik is the former editorial writer for The Korea Herald and managing editor of The Korea Times. The Korea Herald is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.