Number of South Korean students in China plummets

A South Korean walks past a billboard of a Chinese language institute in Seoul, July 6, 2004. The number of South Koreans studying in China has dropped dramatically in recent years. [Reuters]

South Korea's government recently revealed new data that shows the number of Koreans studying in China has dropped dramatically in the past six years, shrinking by nearly 60,000 students.

South Korean students and observers tell VOA's Mandarin Service that strict COVID controls during the pandemic, fewer Korean companies operating in China as the world's second-largest economy slows and growing anti-China sentiment at home are among some of the factors feeding the decline.

Late last month, South Korea's Ministry of Education said the total number of students studying in China dropped by 78% over the past six years. According to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, the population of South Korean students in China reached a record 73,240 in 2017 and by April 2023 plummeted to 15,857.

COVID lockdowns

During the pandemic, China's strict lockdowns, which often lasted for weeks at a time, had a huge impact on everyday life, access to supplies and students' ability to finish assignments, Korean student Weaver-jin said.

Weaver-jin has been studying art in China's Chongqing city since 2021 and lived off-campus during the city's lockdown.

"I had a lot of work to do, but it was impossible to progress because of the lockdown. I needed to work on my projects, but the express delivery [service] was halted so I couldn't buy materials," Weaver-jin said.

A Korean student who studied cultural and creative industries at a university in Beijing in 2021, but wished to remain anonymous so she could speak more freely with VOA about the sensitive topic, said she tested positive for COVID during the reopening at the end of 2022.

Although she had no symptoms, she was still required to live in an isolation dormitory for 10 days. After checking into the dorm, she noticed that the listed passport number was not hers, suspected the test results were mixed up and requested a re-test.

"The administrators [said] there were not enough testing kits to let one person test twice. So, I remained in quarantine."

Soong-Chan Park, a professor at the Department of Chinese Studies at South Korea's Yong In University, told VOA in a phone interview that COVID was the biggest reason for the sudden drop in Korean students in China.

"Many students who attended online classes have not returned to China; secondly, people who experienced quarantine have been traumatized," he said. "I was also quarantined for three weeks, and I felt I was going crazy," Park said. "The impact is significant for foreigners, especially Korean parents."

Anti-China sentiment

Park says growing anti-China sentiment among South Koreans also contributed to the decrease in students and their parents not wanting them to study in China.

According to a 2023 poll by the Pew Research Center, 77% of South Korean respondents had a negative attitude toward China compared with 31% in 2002 and 61% in 2017.

Relations between Beijing and Seoul been declining since 2016 following South Korea's decision to deploy an advanced U.S. missile defense system. At the time, China responded by rolling out unofficial restrictions on the "Korean Wave" of popular music, TV dramas and films sweeping the globe.

The U.S. and South Korea say the U.S.-supplied Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, is necessary to help intercept potential incoming ballistic missiles from North Korea, if it should attack. Chinese officials say South Korea could use the THAAD system's radar to "peer into" China, which South Korean and U.S. officials have dismissed, citing the threat from Pyongyang and Seoul's right to defend itself.

Korean student Weaver-jin said attitudes on both sides were frustrating.

"People with anti-China and anti-Korea sentiments will deliberately look for reasons to hate China or South Korea," he said. "I hope they can calm down and think about whether these bases are reasonable or just looking for reasons to object for the sake of objecting."

Fewer firms, shifting tides

Professor Park said China's struggling economy, high youth unemployment, and deteriorating business environment for foreign companies have also made it increasingly less attractive to South Korean companies that often hire those who studied in China.

According to The Export-Import Bank of Korea, the number of Korean companies establishing new entities in China has decreased since 2010, dropping to 138 in 2023, the lowest number in 30 years. Meanwhile, the number of Korean firms opening new entities in Japan in the first half of 2023 surpassed the number opening in China for the first time since the 1980s.

"Many Korean companies have left China," Park said, "and it is currently difficult for international students to find jobs [in China] after graduation."

In China, Cankao Xiaoxi picked up the story about the sharp decrease in students from South Korea, but there has been no official comment on the drop. Cankao Xiaoxi is a newspaper that publishes translations of foreign news and is owned by state-run Xinhua News Agency. VOA reached out to the Chinese Embassy in Washington for comment on South Korea's shrinking numbers.

The embassy's spokesperson did not comment on students from South Korea but did note efforts to draw in more students from the United States, which has seen a similar decline.

Last month, the U.S. ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, said that in the last "six to seven years" the number of American students studying in China has dropped from about 15,000 to 350 in 2022. In 2023, that number grew to 700.

Embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu said for the U.S., China is implementing President Xi Jinping's "initiative to invite 50,000 young Americans to China on exchange and study programs over the next five years."

Liu also noted China's efforts to make travel between the two countries more efficient.

"We now provide walk-in visa application services, and have significantly optimized the visa policy for travelers from within the United States," Liu said in an emailed response.

As relations between South Korea and China have struggled, trade and people-to-people ties between Seoul and Washington have improved.

In 2023, the United States, for the first time in two decades, overtook China as the top destination for South Korean exports, according to South Korea's Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.

China, however, is still South Korea's largest trading partner. It is also the second-largest study destination for South Korean students after the U.S., which welcomes more than 43,000 Korean students each year, according to the Institute of International Education.

Jun-hyeok Seo, who studied at China's Zhejiang University, told VOA he still hopes to work for a Chinese company in the future and create an entrepreneurial project connecting South Korea and China.

"I think China is still an attractive market but of course, there are certainly risks for foreigners," Seo said.

Weaver-jin plans to stay in Chongqing after graduation, participate in more exhibitions and run self-media on platforms such as Douyin, the Chinese version of social media app TikTok.

"The work partners I met while studying for my master's degree and the professors with whom I can discuss my work are all here," Weaver-jin said. "For me now, China has more opportunities than South Korea."

However, if sentiment and the Chinese economy keep fueling a drop in Korean student numbers, more are likely to look to a future with better opportunities elsewhere.