Under the presidency of Park Geun-hye, Korea-China relations have improved significantly. Following a very successful 2013 summit, the two leaders are scheduled to hold their second summit in July 2014, and cooperation on a range of issues is increasing. As China continues to take on a larger role in the region, what that will mean for Korea in terms of security, economics, and soft power is the subject of increasing focus. Thus far, the public reaction to this warming relationship has been largely positive.
The Korean public now views China more positively than at any time since Asan began tracking this across a range of metrics. The favorability of China is currently at its highest point, and the 2014 summit will drive that number higher. Perceptions of China as a cooperative partner have also steadily increased through the first half of 2014, and will climb higher following the summit. But as this report will show, wariness of China lingers just below the surface.
First, the increase in China’s hard power unsettles much of the Korean public with a clear majority stating that it perceives this increase as a threat. While it is not perceived to be a direct threat to South Korea, it is seen as making the region a more dangerous place. Second, China’s economic rise is not seen as one of unquestionable good for the Korean economy. There are growing worries that Korea has become too dependent on China, and that an economic slowdown there will have serious consequences for the Korean economy. At the same time, Chinese firms are moving up the value chain and are already beginning to challenge Korean firms both within China and abroad.
Another significant problem that South Korea expects China to deal with is North Korea. A majority stated that addressing a nuclear North Korea is the single most important issue for the leaders to discuss during their second summit. A similar point highlights the underlying wariness the Korean public holds of China—more than two-thirds believe that China does not support the reunification of the Korean Peninsula.
Clearly, the Korean public supports recent moves to improve relations with China. But that support is not unwavering. As this report illustrates, worries about China and its rise abound, and if those are not clearly addressed they may limit the future of Korea-China relations.