(Un)diplomatic Revenge: China, South Korea and Reciprocal Border Restrictions

By | February 07, 2023 | No Comments

The seeming end of the pandemic as not meant an end to restrictions on non-citizens entering certain countries. Indeed, China’s years-long border closure ended only to see the walls go up again, only this time for specific passport holders. While discussing the finer points of the efficacy of border closures from a public health perspective is best left to the epidemiologist, international affairs observers can find some diplomatic reasons for Beijing and Seoul’s undiplomatic behavior toward one another of late. In this latest Sino-NK translation, we bring a perspective on what Korean media have is missing from Korean media discourse on the PRC and the ROK’s reciprocal decisions to restrict the cross-border movement of the opposing country’s citizens.


China’s revenge? There Is Another Reason for China’s Untoward Behavior[1]


On January 31, China’s Civil Aviation Administration issued a notification to Chinese and Korean airlines operating flights between China and Korea stating that from February 1, passengers on direct flights from Korea to China will be required to take a Covid test at the airport. On January 8, China removed quarantine requirements for all international arrivals, in addition to doing away with PCR tests. Yet PCR tests will continue for arrivals from South Korea. 

This could be interpreted as diplomatic retaliation for South Korea’s decision on January 28 to extend the suspension of short-term visas for Chinese nationals until February 28. In fact, the Chinese foreign ministry hinted at this during its regular briefing on January 30th right after the Spring Festival. Also, the following day, spokesperson Mao Ning said “It is regrettable that individual countries persist in implementing discriminatory entry restrictions against China, to which China is firmly opposed and has reason to take reciprocal measures against.” She acknowledged that it was diplomatic revenge based on “reciprocal measures” in response to South Korea’s measures. 

On this, we need to weigh the subtle “war of nerves” surrounding China, Korea and Japan’s anti-Covid measures. Late last year and early this year, Korea and Japan implemented their own respective measures to minimize the effects of the worsening Covid situation in China by instituting PCR tests for short-term arrivals from China. As soon as these measures aimed at arrivals from China were implemented, China announced that it was suspending short-term visas for Korean nationals as well as regular visas for Japanese nationals.


China’s initially stronger retaliation against Japan

Japan and Korea’s policies implementing mandatory PCR testing for short-term arrivals from China are the same. On top of that, around dozens of countries including the US, Canada and the EU require negative Covid tests for arrivals from China. Yet Korea took things a step further. Korea suspended issuance of short-term visas for Chinese nationals except for those for critical business, humanitarian or official purposes. This was an extension of the measures implemented on January 27, the only policy of its kind among the world’s major countries. Initially, China’s retaliatory measures against Japan were more severe. Short-term visas for Koreans were suspended, yet work and student visas continued to be issued. In contrast, all visas for Japanese nationals, except for those for official purposes, were suspended. 

Japan responded much more forcefully to China’s retaliatory measures than Korea. South Korea’s foreign ministry expressed its regret while stating that they would “continue to remain in contact with China”, yet the Japanese foreign ministry’s response was more forceful, calling for a withdrawal of the measures. They said China’s suspension of visas was not about “reciprocal measures”, but unscientific diplomatic retaliation. China soon responded. On January 29, China began issuing regular visas for Japanese nationals again, only 19 days after visas had been suspended. Yet they continued to suspend visas for Korean nationals. This is different from China’s line about “reciprocal measures”. Japan requires PCR tests for arrivals from China, yet like Korea, is not suspending visas for Chinese nationals’ wishing to enter the country. 

China implemented its soft-line policy toward Japan two days after Korea extended its suspension of most short-term visas for Chinese nationals. China’s measures to protect the health of its own nationals and limit entry into the country went from “individual countries” to “individual confrontations”. Yet it is hard to find coverage in the Korean media that clearly explains the process and details behind this. It has only focused on China’s “ridiculous” diplomatic retaliation against South Korea, relying on the “Sinophobia” that has arisen in the wake of the pandemic. 

For these reasons, it is increasingly difficult to ascertain what exactly is the current situation with Covid in China as well as what exactly is the Chinese government’s grievance with South Korea. In late January following the Spring Festival, many Chinese returned from the cities and quickly dispersed in their home villages. In fact, in Henan Province, the Covid infection rates in both the cities and in rural areas have exceeded 90%. China’s overall infection rate is estimated to be around 85%. In other words, Covid-19 has reached a climax in China, and has started to let up, as revealed by a January 25 report from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s statistical service on the current situation with infections inside the country.

According to this report, after logging negative PCR test results at 29.9% on December 25 last year, by January 23 of this year that number had dropped to 5.5% as a result of regular inspections for hospital staff as well as members of the public at large who sought out testing. After registering 4,273 hospital deaths due to Covid on January 4, by January 23 that number had declined to 896.

In line with concerns in the West, the report mentions increased apprehension over the possibility that a new variant could emerge. Based on gene sequencing from 18,906 individuals who have been infected with Covid-19 over the past four months, 70.8% have been infected with the BA.5.2 sub-variant, and 23.4% with the BF.7 sub-variant.

Fortunately, no new variants have been discovered yet. The Chinese government releasing this report is related to its awareness of the blame the World Health Organization (WHO) and individual countries have laid against China for its lack of transparency about even this most recent spreading of Covid-19. Furthermore, many countries have strengthened protective measures aimed at arrivals from China. Of course, even though it’s hard to take the Chinese center for disease control’s report at face value, it seems clear that they have achieved herd immunity. Nevertheless, there is a definite possibility that in a few months’ time, when immunity has weakened, that variants such as the highly contagious XBB could become rampant. 


South Korean media are missing the big picture, need to see reality

At a time when the situation with Covid-19 has begun to settle in mainland China, China is either currently putting its displeasure toward Korea on full display, or something else is going on. On January 31, the most extensively-covered topic in China’s top media related to South Korea was not anything related to the immigration restrictions or the PCR test requirement, but the joint statement issued at a joint press conference held between US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Minister of National Defense Lee Jong-sup. In this case, the main point made in Chinese media was that the US would increasingly use South Korea as a strategic asset. Devising a common response between the ROK and the US  to deterring North Korea’s nuclear threat was but one issue, as there has been a rise in discussions among some quarters about South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons or re-deploying American tactical nuclear weapons. 

Chinese media have covered this state of affairs in Korea extensively, and have expressed fears that US redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons would not only be about deterring North Korea. As such, some social media users have expressed misgivings as to whether the Yoon Suk Yeol administration is taking a pro-US, anti-China line at the expense of close cooperation with Beijing, and netizens have unleashed scathing attacks against South Korea in the comment boxes of media articles. South Korea is the only major country to suspend the issuance of short-term visas to Chinese nationals and then extend that suspension for one month, which shows an unusual degree of hostility toward China.


Original article by Mo Jong-hyuk. Translated by Anthony V. Rinna.


[1] Source: “China’s revenge? There is another reason for China’s bratty behavior [중국의 보복? 한국에 단단히 뿔난 이유따로 있다]”, Sisa Journal Issue No. 1738, February 4, 2023, https://www.sisajournal.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=255327


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