Why is South Korea Hesitant to Boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics?

By Seong Hyeon Choi
South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s visit to Australia on December 12-15, 2021, revealed a vast discrepancy in Seoul and Canberra’s strategy against the intensifying U.S.-China competition. During a press conference held on December 13, 2021, Moon stated that South Korea is not considering to participate in the diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, whereas Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia is seeking a “rule of law and free and open Indo-Pacific,” criticizing China’s behaviors in the South China Sea.
Although a Blue House official stated that the decision over the diplomatic boycott is yet to be made, Moon’s account highlighted the difference between Australia and South Korea in handling the rise of China. While the two countries are both U.S. allies with strong economic ties with China, South Korea shows stronger resistance to joining the boycott movement. Australia, on the other hand, made a quick decision to boycott the Olympics on December 8.
Australia’s boycott aligns with the U.S.’s emphasis on human rights and democracy amid bitter U.S.-China relations. On December 7, 2021, the U.S. decided not to send any official delegation to Beijing in February 2022 for China’s human rights record in Xinjiang. The U.S. boycott from the Olympics was followed by action from its traditional allies – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the U.K. – indicating that the recent escalation of political and economic strife between the U.S. and China is expanded to the diplomatic boycott movement of the sports events, similar to the boycotts of both diplomatic delegations and the athletes in the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics during the Cold War. In response, China criticized the U.S.’s decision as “politicizing the sports.” 
Ironically, South Korea’s hesitation to boycott is highly intertwined with political and economic motives. Firstly, South Korea has experience with Chinese sanctions from past diplomatic friction with China. Beijing’s sanctions against South Korea after its deployment of Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in July 2016 show how China can weaponize its economic leverage against neighboring states. Chinese tourism to South Korea and import of Korean cultural products – including movies and cosmetics – were prohibited, creating an 18.7 trillion KRW ($15.7 billion) lossto the South Korean tourism industry. The fear of further sanctions has since constricted South Korea’s approach with China.
Secondly, South Korea’s economic dependence on China undermines its diplomatic assertiveness against Beijing. According to the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade (KIET), 1,088 types of imported goods are considered vulnerable to Chinese sanctions. Many of these materials, including lithium and magnesium, are crucial to South Korea’s main industries, such as semiconductors, steel, shipbuilding, and batteries. In other words, China can utilize raw materials to assert political leverage over South Korea. China’s leverage over South Korea’s raw materials supply can be observed in the urea shortage incident in October 2021. Urea is a substance that can break down nitrogen oxide pollutants produced from diesel engines into nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water. Due to its environmental friendliness, the Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) facilities, which requires urea for the engines to function, are widely used in automobiles with diesel engines to reduce nitrogen oxide pollutions. Since South Korean environmental regulations also require freight vehicles with diesel engines to use SCR engines and urea to reduce exhaust gas emissions, urea became necessary for the country’s domestic distribution industry - among which 97.6% were imported from China. Thus, after China locked up urea exports in October 2021, trucks in South Korea stopped their operations, and the country’s domestic distribution network was driven into crisis. Hence, fully aware that further Chinese supply-chain or import lockdowns can render South Korea’s industries powerless, South Korean politicians are wary of provoking any strife with Beijing. 
Furthermore, the Moon Administration’s desire to formally end the Korean War with North Korea requires China’s strong support. Moon has been promoting the cessation of the 70 years-long Korean War as a starting point to the denuclearization of North Korea. For the Moon administration, the upcoming Olympics is an opportunity to revive inter-Korean dialogue, much like the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics that led to three inter-Korean summits. As China was one of the participants of the Korean War, the Moon Administration hopes to confirm China’s support for peace in the Korean Peninsula. Boycotting the Olympics while seeking an End-of-War declaration would be counterproductive and irritate China.  
For these reasons, China offered South Korea “carrots” for its attendance. A South Korean film was released in China in December 2021 for the first time after the THAAD deployment, implying Beijing’s willingness to lower sanctions against Korean culture. Yang Jiechi, a member of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo, stated his support for the End-of-War declaration for “promoting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula” and also pledged to cooperate for the supply of raw materials to ensure “stable communication on regional and global industrial supply chains.” Neglecting these offers and stepping away from Beijing would be too burdensome for South Korea.
Nevertheless, South Korea’s ambiguity between the U.S. and China may also cause backlash to its long-term diplomacy. If South Korea does not maneuver a breakthrough to overcome its economic dependence on China, its diplomacy will gradually lean towards China and potentially isolate itself from other liberal democratic nations. It may even be viewed as ‘favoring’ the Chinese authoritarian regime, which will hurt its status as one of the few East Asian full democracies. Moreover, relying on China for the denuclearization of North Korea may marginalize the ROK-U.S. alliance. While China does play a crucial role in the North Korea issue, South Korea must also consider the importance of deterring any further North Korean nuclear armament and provocations before initiating any peace process. A reliable peace process requires solid security engagement with the U.S. and declaring peace in the Korean Peninsula without such efforts will only give North Korea and China a means to undermine U.S. relevance in the region. 

South Korea’s ‘China conundrum,’ therefore, will persistently cause a headache for its decision-makers. As seen in Seoul’s reaction against boycotting Beijing Olympics, South Korea’s geopolitical location and increasing political and economic leverage of China will constrain it from keeping pace with its democratic allies. Meanwhile, the public’s increasing anti-China sentiment and an approval rating of 50.9% on diplomatic boycott add another concern for Seoul as it prepares for the next presidential election in March 2022. Seoul will need to start finding the answers to the dilemmatic question of “whether to hedge or to choose” between the U.S. and China.

Seong Hyeon Choi is a research intern with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.