By Jun Ji-hye
South Koreans’ sentiment toward China is worsening quickly amid the ongoing conflict between Seoul and Beijing over the deployment of a U.S. advanced missile defense system on the Korean Peninsula, according to data released Thursday.
The finding was part of a big data study by Daum Soft covering 4.1 billion Twitter posts and 80 million news reports from Jan. 1, 2016, to March 6 this year.
The company said the study was to look into public sentiment about the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery here and China’s protests.
The number of references to the THAAD battery began to appear in earnest in February of last year when Seoul and Washington officially began consultation on whether to deploy the system in response to North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket that month, the firm said. At the time, the number of THAAD references stood at 55,000, about an eightfold rise compared to the previous month.
Then in July when the allies announced their decision to deploy the battery in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang Province, the number of references to THAAD increased to 145,000.
Among those related to THAAD, the number of references to China last year was the most at 144,000, followed by the United States at 121,000. References to Beijing included “retaliation,” “economy” and “opposition,” the company noted.
Between July and August last year, and January and February this year, the use of negative terms toward China accounted for 85 percent.
“Last July, terms that were frequently used regarding China included concerns, tension and crisis, while terms such as damage, threats, boycott, childish and loss were seen the most this month,” said Choi Jae-won, director of the company. “South Koreans seem to have begun to feel the seriousness of China’s retaliation, and this has led to growing disaffection with the country.”
Choi added that whenever the issue involving THAAD gained attention, people’s interests in China increased at the same time.
China has been taking diverse measures deemed as economic retaliation, claiming that the U.S. anti-missile system seriously harms its security interests despite Seoul and Washington’s assurance that the battery is designed only to defend against North Korean missiles.
The retaliation has included restricting tourists from going to South Korea, suspending operations of South Korean retail giant Lotte Mart in China and banning South Korean entertainment content.
Lotte Group has apparently become the main target of Beijing’s retaliation as the conglomerate signed a land swap deal with the Ministry of National Defense to provide the military with the company-owned golf course in Seongju as the site for the THAAD battery.
Despite China’s strong protests, South Korea and the United States have begun the process of installing the system as the first batch of equipment including two missile launchers arrived here Monday.
The White House said Wednesday that the U.S. missile defense system being installed in South Korea is “critical” to defending its ally from North Korean threats.
“We’re very troubled by the launching of missiles that have occurred from North Korea,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said at a regular briefing. “I think that’s why the THAAD missile system that we’ve started to deploy in South Korea is so important.”
“We’re continuing to work with the government of South Korea to make sure they have the defenses necessary to protect themselves. The deployment of the THAAD system is critical to their protection as witnessed by this weekend’s ballistic missile tests.”