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Hopes Growing China May Ease Informal South Korea Sanctions


South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping by telephone at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, May 11, 2017.

South Korea’s recent election of liberal politician Moon Jae-in as the country’s new president has triggered a shift in China’s approach to relations with Seoul.

After months of harsh criticism of South Korea’s decision to deploy a U.S.-made missile defense system and the enactment of harsh economic sanctions, Beijing appears to be changing its tact.

Its opposition to South Korea’s deployment of the advanced Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system has not gone away, but is becoming less shrill.

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor (right) is seen in Seongju, South Korea, April 26, 2017.
A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor (right) is seen in Seongju, South Korea, April 26, 2017.

And some see signs that China is already beginning to loosen its ban on the import of South Korean cultural products such as television shows and entertainment performances, as well as group travel by Chinese tourists to the country.

The shift started with signals from the top late last week.

On Friday, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping met with an envoy of South Korean President Moon, he said Beijing was willing to work together with Seoul to “properly handle disputes” and “put China-South Korea relations back onto a normal track.”

Over the past few days, reports in the Chinese state media have noted signals that the ice-breaking may have already begun. Two South Korean musicals already have performance dates in Beijing and Shanghai. “Bballae,” which means laundry in Korean, will begin in late June. Performances of another musical, “My Bucket List,” will begin in Beijing and Shanghai in August, reports said.

According to a report in the National Business Daily, which was also carried in the Communist Party-mouthpiece People’s Daily, 4,000 Chinese employees of an unnamed medical equipment company are reaching out to travel agents in Seoul to book a group trip to South Korea.

According to the report, the trip is expected to “thaw” the frozen-out tourism industry. Alitrip is also reporting a rise in the number of bookings to South Korean amusement parks.

Nonetheless, the tourism sanctions have hit South Korea hard, with the number of tourists visiting China’s northeastern neighbor dropping sharply in recent months.

FILE - A Chinese tourist looks towards the north through a pair of binoculars at the Imjingak pavilion near the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul, Oct. 16, 2013.
FILE - A Chinese tourist looks towards the north through a pair of binoculars at the Imjingak pavilion near the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul, Oct. 16, 2013.

Chinese travel agencies are still barred from booking group tours to South Korea. Advertisements for individual travel packages are also absent from most websites. Those websites that do have discount tours (such as CTrip.com) are not prominently placed.

“China will take some different actions regarding Korean entertainment or access to the Korean market and tourism, but actually that will come after President Moon and Xi Jinping meet,” said Lee Ki-beom, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

President Moon will be traveling to Washington next month to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump and then is likely to meet with Xi around July. In the run-up to that meeting, China is likely to try to sweeten the relationship with continued moves, but some are skeptical the ban on group tours will be completely lifted.

Lee said since Moon is leading a minority government, he needs the support of South Korea’s legislature, the National Assembly, for major issues like approving a new law on the THAAD missile system. This would provide Moon an opportunity to soften South Korea's diplomatic stance towards China, but the National Assembly is unlikely to accept Beijing’s demand to dismantle it.

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