Does China have more influence over South Korea than North Korea?

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DonKirk3By Donald Kirk,

We keep hearing about all the influence the Chinese have over North Korea.

If only they’d exert their power, maybe cut off or slow down the flow of oil that’s the lifeblood of the country, then the North Koreans would start talking seriously about giving up their nukes. At least that’s the theory.

Now what about China’s real influence over South Korean policy? We don’t hear too much from South Korea about China’s claim to the entire South China Sea or the construction of air strips on islands held by China in the Spratlys. And we certainly don’t hear a thing about the pressure the Chinese keep exerting on Japan to give up the Senkakus, aka Diaoyu, in the East China Sea.

All that’s on the broad level of international relations among powers jostling against one another as they assert their sway in the western Pacific. Now how about getting down to the micro level?

South Korea's KBS canceled a performance by the Shen Yung dancers after pressure from the Chinese Communist regime in Beijing.
South Korea’s KBS canceled a performance by the Shen Yun dancers after pressure from the Chinese Communist regime in Beijing.

What kind of influence does China have over the South Korean government, over freedom of thought in South Korea and over the right of free expression?

The answer, to judge by one case that I’ve been looking into, is quite a lot. Who would believe that Seoul District Court ruled against a performing dance group from New York in its bid to stage a performance at KBS before both a live and a national television audience? And who would believe that KBS, before the case went to court, canceled the performance in the first place?

Well, to get to the reason for the ruckus, the group is Shen Yun Performing Arts, founded by members of the Falun Gong, the mystical Chinese movement that believes in meditation, Buddhism, ancient Chinese culture – a lot of stuff that’s anathema to Chinese authorities. In fact, they hate Falun Gong so much that they’ve been persecuting and jailing and harassing its members for years.

The Shen Yun company, however, is no upstart bunch of fanatics purveying a weird cult.

They put on an amazingly polished program, dancing out stories reflecting thousands of years of Chinese history. Unlike the K-Pop stuff that dominates Korean entertainment TV, Shen Yun does not consist of a line-up of a few dancers gyrating to the sounds of a small but loud band. They’ve got 40 or so dancers on stage performing ballet sequences, acting out tales from historic legends to the present, all to the music of a 35-piece orchestra.

No, they were not banned entirely from South Korea. They played at Jeonju, Ulsan and finally Suwon, where I saw their final performance in the Gyeonggi Arts Center. Most of the 2,000 seats were filled at ticket prices ranging from 80,000 to 300,000 won — nearly $80 to nearly $300. This was high-class entertainment by a group that describes itself as “the world’s premier classical Chinese dance and music company.”

That proud boast may be true. They’ve played at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall in New York, and they’ve shown up in dozens of countries around the world, including Taiwan but most definitely not China.

In fact, the reason KBS canceled their scheduled performance was that Chinese officials hinted at dire consequences if KBS provided a venue. Might KBS programs have difficulty penetrating China if Chinese authorities were displeased?

The Chinese have also written similar letters to theater operators in the U.S., usually to no avail. Nor have the Chinese, on an infinitely broader scale, gotten too far exerting similar pressure on North Korea. Whatever the Chinese are telling them, the North Koreans refuse to knuckle under.

By comparison, Korean organizations are easy – though Lee Chang-sik, CEO of New Cosmos Media, responsible for bringing Shen Yun to Korea at the tail end of a six-month world tour, finds it difficult to book major venues in Seoul.

For some reason, he keeps getting turned down by huge theaters where this type of performance should be a natural. Either they’re government owned or owned by companies that do major business in China. None wants to jeopardize good-will with the Chinese just for the sake of featuring performances by a dance company.

It’s not difficult, of course, to see why Chinese authorities hate Shen Yun. Most of the scenes they enacted were the stuff of fantasies, dreams, mythology, but a few of them cut to the quick. Take, for instance, the bit about Red Guards during China’s Cultural Revolution driving monks from a monastery.

And then there’s the finale showing Chinese Communist policemen bullying Falun Gong adherents practicing meditation. “Just when it seems like all hope is lost,” says a program note, “a holy scene appears and a new era begins.”

That’s a message that China’s rulers cannot stand. This company, like the whole Falun Gong movement, challenges the basic tenets of their grip on power.

It’s to South Korea’s credit that the Chinese have not been able to ban Shen Yun entirely from performing in the country. It’s just too bad a mass Korean audience did not have the pleasure of seeing their performance live on TV via KBS.

Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades. He’s at