The survey, published Oct. 2 by the university’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies (IPUS), shows 46 percent of respondents regard China as “the most threatening country to peace on the Korean Peninsula,” almost tripling last year’s 17 percent.
Only 33 percent view North Korea as the most threatening country, dropping by almost half from last year’s 64 percent. It’s also the first time that respondents perceive China as a greater threat than North Korea.
The IPUS survey, which has been conducted every year since 2007, asks respondents about their opinions of countries that neighbor South Korea.
The growing antagonism of the South Korean public toward China comes at a turning point in North Korean diplomacy.
There has been significant diplomatic activity this year between North Korea, its Asian neighbors, and the United States. In April, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un traveled to South Korea and met with President Moon Jae-in, becoming the first North Korean leader to set foot on Southern territory. In September, Moon visited Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital.
The new survey shows that South Koreans are developing a more positive opinion of the North, even as the two countries are still technically at war since the combatants never signed a peace treaty. An armistice has been in place since 1953.
While the survey showed that 56 percent of respondents believe that North Korea will use military force to threaten South Korea, that’s about 15 percentage points lower than last year. More than three-quarters of South Koreans still feel an immediate threat from North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
IPUS senior researcher Choi Gyu-bin thinks the change in attitude toward China is related to the diplomatic conflict over the U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile system in South Korea.
“We believe that people feel closer to North Korea, due to the progress in the relations between South Korea and North Korea since the current government took office,” Choi said. “After the deployment of THAAD in 2016, continuous economic retaliation from the Chinese created a negative impact on [South Korean perceptions of] China.”
Fearful that the radar capabilities of the missile system could be used to monitor Chinese airspace, the Chinese regime punished South Korea for hosting the system, imposing restrictions on South Korean businesses and full-scale boycotts.
In February 2017, Lotte agreed to provide land from its golf courses to host the THAAD system—making it a prime target for the regime’s economic countermeasures. For months, construction had stalled on the Lotte theme park in Shenyang, a city in northeastern China.
Last year, the Chinese regime restricted tourists from traveling to South Korea, and state propaganda encouraged Chinese consumers to boycott South Korean products.
In the early 1990s, when the North Korean nuclear weapons crisis first emerged, the Chinese communist regime led triple and six-party talks but didn’t resolve the problem. North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006.