South Korea and China relations warming but chilly restrictions remain
A year after the two countries reset bilateral ties following anti-missile dispute, Beijing’s travel ban has not been fully lifted
South Korean businesses in China are still feeling the chill of restrictions imposed by Beijing nearly a year after a diplomatic thaw in relations between the two Asian neighbours.
While official exchanges between China and South Korea have steadily resumed, deep suspicions remain after last year’s diplomatic row over a US-backed anti-missile system deployed by Seoul, according to South Korean diplomatic sources.
“The restriction on tourism is not fully lifted and advertisements showing South Korean celebrities are still not shown on Chinese television,” one source said.
“Official interactions with the Chinese side are getting back to normal,” said the source. “The attitudes from the Chinese side are not as cold as last year, but never as warm as before.”
Beijing ordered travel companies to stop selling popular group trips to South Korea as part of its protest against Seoul’s decision to install the US-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system.
South Korea said the installation was needed to keep it safe from the North Korean nuclear threat, but Beijing said the anti-missile system was unacceptable as it was capable of detecting China’s military secrets.
The tour ban saw Chinese tourists to South Korea drop 48 per cent last year to 4.2 million.
In addition, South Korean television shows, pop stars and celebrities were reportedly banned or blocked from Chinese television and advertisements, although Beijing never officially announced these bans and has denied any clampdown.
But officials from the two nations agreed last October to reset bilateral ties, with Chinese President Xi Jinping rolling out the red carpet for South Korean President Moon Jae-in in December.
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Since then, China has partially lifted the travel ban, with tour agencies in Beijing, Shandong, Hubei, Chongqing, and – most recently – affluent Shanghai and Jiangsu in eastern China now allowed to sell group trips to South Korea, according to earlier reports by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency
But a tour agent in Guangxi in southern China said bans on group tours to South Korea remained in place in the province.
“Group tours to South Korea have been banned for quite a long time, and we haven’t received any orders to lift it,” the agent said.
Even if the ban was lifted, visits to affiliates of Lotte Group, South Korea’s largest retail conglomerate, would not be included in the travel plans for Chinese tour groups, according to a tour agent in Beijing.
Lotte, which also operates hotels and duty-free stores, has been targeted by Beijing since it agreed a land-swap plan with the South Korean government to host THAAD.
Lotte Group has said it will pull its retail business out of China, with Lotte Mart, its retailing affiliate, set to close its 12 remaining outlets in China before the end of this year. Chinese retail firms Wumei and Liqun took over Lotte Mart’s other 93 outlets earlier this year.
But governments from both sides continue stepping up their exchanges. About 400 local government officials, academics, and businessmen from China, Japan and South Korea gathered on Wednesday in the city of Kaifeng in central China’s Henan province.
Their purpose, according to Kaifeng Daily, is a three-day meeting to mark the continuing relations of the neighbouring countries’ sister cities.
And, earlier this week, an official delegation led by the Communist Party chief of southeastern China’s Guangxi province visited South Korea, where Chinese officials called for more investment and tourists from South Korea, according to Guangxi Daily.