The first four months of 2022 marked a turn toward difficult terrain in the China-South Korea relationship, including the challenge of managing conflicting expressions of patriotism during the Beijing Olympics. The Olympics opening ceremonies were attended by National Assembly Speaker Park Byung-seug, South Korea’s second-highest-ranking official by protocol, despite the U.S. imposition of a “diplomatic boycott.” North Korea’s dozen missile tests since January 2022 included a “new” ICBM launch in March ahead of the 110th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth and Yoon Suk-yeol’s presidential inauguration. The latest tests drove China-South Korea dialogue, new U.S. sanctions, and reassertions from Beijing that U.S. actions remain the decisive factor in resolving the peninsula problem. Beijing’s hosting of the Olympics and Pyongyang’s commemorations of Kim anniversaries presented opportunities for jointly reaffirming China-North Korea friendship. Despite signs of rebounding economic activity after the resumption of cross-border freight train operations in January, China’s COVID-19 lockdowns remain a source of uncertainty.
South Korea’s election of pro-U.S. opposition candidate Yoon Suk-yeol generated a mixture of anxiety and veiled warnings from Chinese commentators. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call to Yoon two weeks following the election was hailed as an unprecedented gesture of respect from a Chinese leader to an incoming South Korean president. But Yoon’s first congratulatory calls after his electoral victory were from Quad members as well as the United Kingdom, reflecting a distinct South Korean tilt toward the United States amid the U.S.-China strategic rivalry. Yoon’s campaign platform posited a positive-sum relationship between his pledges to restore a “comprehensive strategic alliance” with the United States and to establish relations with China built on “mutual respect.” But it remains to be seen how Beijing will respond to the Yoon administration’s shift toward an unambiguous alignment with the United States.
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