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China Attempts to Exploit Treated Water Debate to Sow Division in South Korea

Irritated by South Korea's growing ties with the US and Japan, China aims to create discord by exploiting opposition to the release of Fukushima treated water.



South Korean politician and fishermen protests against Japan's Fukushima water release before the news conference by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) outside Nippon Press Center building in Tokyo, Japan July 4, 2023. (© REUTERS/Issei Kato)

South Korean leftists have stunned the international community with a scathing attack against International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi. Protestors were heard yelling, "Grossi, go home!" during the IAEA chief's visit to the country. Grossi's reprobation was over Japan's plan to release treated water from TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. In the background of this left-wing anti-Japanese sentiment is the goading presence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

Yoon Suk-yeol's administration has strengthened the three-way alliance between the United States, Japan, and South Korea. However, the Beijing Xi Jinping administration has repeatedly expressed its displeasure over the rapprochement. In line with this, the Chinese ambassador to South Korea has attempted to galvanize the left wing. Recently, he even called on South Korean opposition parties to unite against Japan's release of "contaminated water." China is openly pressuring the Yoon administration while plotting to divide South Korean politics behind the scenes.

China's 'Velvet Paw' Tactics

President Yoon's state visit to the United States in April highlighted China's checks against South Korea. At their summit meeting, the US and South Korea unveiled the "Washington Declaration." It announced the establishment of a new "US-South Korea Nuclear Consultation Group" (NCG) to strengthen the alliance. 

Japan-South Korea relations also saw a revival of shuttle diplomacy for the first time in 12 years, with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's visit to South Korea in May. Solidarity between the two nations is now the strongest in recent years.

Since then, China has steadily increased its pressure on South Korea with "velvet paw" tactics. Through these tactics, the CCP is broadly tightening its grip on the country. 

For instance, since May, several developing countries have withdrawn support for South Korea's bid to host the World Expo in Busan in 2030. 

According to Chosun Ilbo, it is believed that these countries were requested to do so by a country on which they are economically dependent. This suggests that the change in stance by these countries could be due to Chinese interference. In addition, China canceled a series of scheduled China-Korea dialogues on diplomacy and economics at the South Korean Embassy in Beijing. 

South Korean protestors tear up a giant banner depicting the logo of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in central Seoul, South Korea, July 8, 2023. (© REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo)

China Blames South Korea for Deteriorating Relations

Since the beginning of 2023, China has lifted the ban on group travel for its citizens to approximately 60 countries. Although China lifted the ban for Thailand and Vietnam, it did not do so for South Korea or Japan. South Korean airlines have subsequently suspended certain flight routes to Chinese destinations. The Global Times, an affiliate of the CCP's flagship newspaper, commented on this development. 

The tabloid described the deterioration of Sino-South Korean relations as the "obvious side effects" of the Yoon administration's foreign policy. It further lambasted Yoon's foreign policy as "very much tilted towards pro-US and pro-Japan routes." The writers also blamed the administration for the lack of "Chinese travelers crowding in duty-free shops and tourist spots." 

The CCP's Political Maneuvering

The psychological warfare between China and South Korea decisively worsened with the actions of Xing Haiming, the Chinese ambassador to South Korea.


On June 8, Xing invited Lee Jae Myung, head of South Korea's largest opposition party, the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), to a "banquet" at his official residence. During the proceedings, Xing produced a document written on an A4 sheet of paper which he then read. The document criticized every aspect of the Yoon administration’s stance toward China. Xing attacked Yoon’s attitude towards the CCP’s historical views, security, the economy, and the issue of Japan’s treated water. The following are some of Xing's claims.

  • "[China and Korea] helped each other in the face of Japanese imperialist aggression."
  • "China is not responsible [for the deterioration of China-South Korea relations]."
  • "The Taiwan issue is our core interest. We hope South Korea will keep its promise and ensure China's core interests are respected." 
  • "[South Korea's trade deficit with China] is primarily due to its 'de-Sinicization'."
  • "Although the US is pressuring China with all its might, those who bet on China's defeat will certainly regret it."
  • "[Japan] is making the Pacific Ocean its personal sewer." 
  • "China and South Korea, as Japan's neighbors, must work together to prevent Japan from releasing contaminated water."
The July 7 edition of the Global Times printed a one-page feature questioning the IAEA report on the plan to release treated water from TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. (©Kyodo)

CCP's Hold on the Chinese Foreign Ministry

In standard diplomatic practice, political party leaders refrain from visiting the ambassador's official residence in major countries, because it would be considered a special expression of courtesy. Therefore, South Korea's ruling and opposition party leaders have also met with the Chinese ambassador at the South Korean National Assembly or other locations. However, it appears Lee could barely contain his excitement about visiting the Chinese Embassy. He even announced his visit in advance and streamed Xing's speech live on YouTube. 

Masayuki Masuda, the director of the Asia and Africa Division at the National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS) of the Ministry of Defense, is an expert on Chinese politics and diplomacy. He believes that Xing's speech hints at certain changes. "This is a result of strengthening the Party Committee's leadership in the Chinese Foreign Ministry," he explains.

In the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the Party Secretary ranks higher than the Foreign Minister. Masuda believes the Chinese ambassador's emphasis on principle at this juncture was motivated by the Xi regime's irritation with South Korea and the United States.

Beijing Attempts to Divide US Allies

In December 2022, the Yoon administration announced its "Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region." 

President Yoon has criticized China concerning the tension in the Taiwan Strait. In an interview with the Reuters news agency on April 19, 2023, Yoon offered the following assessment. "These tensions occurred because of the attempts to change the status quo by force, and we, together with the international community, absolutely oppose such a change."

Wang Yi, the CCP's foreign minister and director of its foreign affairs commission, as well as a member of the Party Politburo, has lately been making ominous comments. Masuda notes, "Since last year, he has been using the phrase 'dark clouds of the new Cold War.' This is a sign that China is wary of the US using its alliances to create a network that covers Asia."

However, Masuda believes that "the Yoon administration is taking a more strategic view of things than expected. China's formerly effective tactics to set the US and South Korea at odds will not work on the current South Korea."

Xing's conduct signified a new step in China's political maneuvering against the Yoon administration. Lee was simply a pawn. However, this "Sino-South Korean united front" has encouraged the South Korean opposition. Similarly inspired, South Korean leftists spewed "Grossi, go home" at a protest during his visit to the country. 

Yoon Suk-yeol
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and President Biden shake hands during a ceremony at the White House on April 26. (© AP via Kyodo)

China-South Korea Relations Cooling Rapidly

The Yoon administration has taken Xing's criticism as serious interference in its domestic affairs. Summoning Xing to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the administration sternly warned the envoy for his "provocative behavior." 

The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded by expressing "serious concern and dissatisfaction," leading to an exchange between the two countries. Yoon expressed his disapproval of the "inappropriate language and behavior" at a cabinet meeting. There were even calls from the conservative camp to declare Xing persona non grata and expel him. Ultimately, the government's decision did not result in the ambassador's expulsion. However, a dark cloud still hangs over Sino-South Korean relations.

South Korea's economic dependence on China has been the main reason for its vulnerability to Chinese diplomatic pressure. That has now begun to change. For 20 years since 2003, China has been Korea's number one export destination. However, the reliance on exports to China is now rapidly declining. In the first half of 2023, exports to China fell by approximately 6% for the first time in 19 years. 


The decline was primarily triggered by external factors, such as the US-China conflict, the semiconductor recession, and China's economic slowdown. Another factor, however, is the "de-Sinicization" of Korean companies which began with the spread of COVID-19


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Ruriko Kubota

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