China has quietly issued a ban on tour groups to South Korea and Japan amid an ongoing row over Seoul's planned deployment of U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system, travel agents confirmed to RFA on Friday.
"We don't currently have any tour groups going to South Korea," an employee who answered the phone at one of the Beijing-based travel agents contacted by RFA confirmed, echoing the responses of the others.
"Actually, we're not sending groups to South Korea or Japan at the moment," the employee said.
Other travel industry sources said tours that had been long-booked would go ahead. However, no new tours would be offered to the two destinations, a favorite among Chinese tourists looking for shopping trips.
But others said there had been a cancellation across the board.
"They've all been canceled, the whole lot," an employee at a second Beijing travel agency said. "From today, we're not taking bookings for tours [to those destinations]."
"If people had already booked, then we will be issuing refunds where appropriate, according to the Travel Agency Contract law," the employee said.
Asked how long the ban would last, the employee said: "I don't know."
But the ban may only be partial. Several travel agencies in the southern city of Shenzhen said they hadn't received any such notification on Friday.
"We haven't received any notification that we can't send tour groups there," the employee said. "Sometimes there are breaking political developments that result in these situations, and we have to do what the government tells us."
"There has been talk of boycotts in the past; for example, there are problems with Malaysian Airlines, but later on we were allowed to go and the ban was lifted," he said.
North Korean missile threat
South Korea has said it and the United States aim to make the THAAD system operational by the end of the year, in a bid to counter the North Korean missile threat.
But China says the system, with its long-range radar, is a threat to China's own security and will do nothing to help resolve tensions with North Korea.
Hong Kong-based political analyst Chung Lok-wai told RFA that tensions with South Korea are continuing to escalate, and that South Korean goods are also being targeted for boycotts.
"I think Beijing is seeking to put pressure on South Korea through a number of unofficial channels at the moment," Chung said. "This travel ban on South Korea has never been an official policy, and travel agencies represent an unofficial diplomatic response [to THAAD]."
"South Korea relies on mainland China for a lot of [income], so they can apply pressure on them in all sorts of ways over time," he said. "It's possible that this could add up to a huge impact on bilateral cooperation in the future."
China's Foreign Ministry on Friday has also protested over large-scale joint military exercises between South Korean and U.S. troops this week, code-named Foal Eagle.
The exercises came after the launch of a ballistic missile by North Korea on Feb. 12.
"We have noted the reports and have already expressed serious concern via diplomatic channels to the relevant sides," spokesman Geng Shuang told journalists in Beijing on Friday.
"Maintaining the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia accords with the interests of all sides and is all parties' responsibility," he said.
Reported by Ding Wenqi for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Goh Fung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.