China appears to be easing up on a wide-ranging unofficial boycott of Korean goods and service over the stationing of a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery from the U.S. here.
The state-run People’s Daily, a bellwether of official opinion, repeatedly referred to Korea as a “close neighbor” recently after a telephone call between President Moon Jae-in, who is skeptical about the deployment, and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on May 11.
This was closely followed by the dispatch of a special envoy to Beijing, former prime minister Lee Hae-chan, last week.
Korean businesses are resuming marketing in China that ground to a screeching halt amid the THAAD spat, and there are signs of sales recovering.
Chinese travel agencies expect Beijing to lift a ban on cut-price group tours to Korea as early as July, and visa applications are rising to 50 to 60 percent of last year’s level after falling to as low as 20 percent.
Chinese travel agencies are asking Korea tour operators about their packages again. The head of one travel agency here said, “Last week, three or four Chinese travel agencies expressed interest in summer tours. We have yet to see actual reservations, but the atmosphere has definitely changed”.
In March, the travel agency closed its department catering to Chinese tourists and reassigned staff to other teams. That month only 370,000 Chinese visited South Korea, down 40 percent compared to the same period of 2016. The figure fell 60 percent last month.
Confectioner Orion said its six plants in China returned to normal operations recently after they had to slash output amid the boycott. Now sales have returned to 80 to 90 percent of previous levels, according to a staffer, and marketing in Chinese supermarkets and other stores has resumed.
Complaints from content exporters have also dropped. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism said it received 56 complaints of unfair treatment in China during March and April, but none this month.
And a telephone hotline by the Small and Medium Business Administration also received only one to two complaints a day from exporters to China compared to 167 over a three-week period in March.
Amore Pacific last week resumed Internet ads for its Hera cosmetics brand in China. The company also plans to resume advertising there using Korean celebrities, like TV commercials featuring actress Song Hye-kyo.
Makeup tutorials are also set to resume in Chinese department stores next month.
Korean airlines are preparing for renewed demand from Chinese travelers. A Korean Air staffer said, “We plan to operate flights at 85 percent of usual seating capacity until late June but adjust the number of available seats according to the situation”.
Asiana Airlines said its office in China has had renewed inquiries about group tours and is considering bolstering the number of flights to China and deploying larger aircraft again.
But Beijing has announced nothing officially, and 90 percent of the 99 Lotte Mart superstores in China remain closed for real or imaginary safety violations. And work has been halted since last winter on a massive shopping mall project in China that Lotte invested W3 trillion in (US$1=W1,125).
Lotte provided the land in southeastern Korea for the THAAD battery. China claims that the powerful radar that comes with the THAAD system may be used to spy on its military activities.