Animosity toward China, which has long simmered in South Korea, exploded into the open this week following a pair of controversies during the Winter Olympics in Beijing.
It began when a woman dressed in a pink hanbok, a traditional Korean dress, carried a Chinese flag while marching in the Olympics opening ceremony. Many South Koreans were outraged, seeing it as Beijing’s latest attempt to claim beloved aspects of Korean culture.
Once the competition began, things only got worse. On Monday, two South Korean short track speed skaters were disqualified for moves deemed illegal, allowing a pair of Chinese skaters to advance and eventually win gold and silver medals. South Korean media outlets echoed discontent, accusing Beijing 2022 judges of bias in favor of China.
“Just let the host country China take all the medals,” declared an article in the Seoul Sinmun newspaper, which began by repeating that sentence 11 times. SBS, a major South Korean broadcaster, aired a segment titled, Top 10 Worst Moments of Cheating by China, featuring past incidents involving Chinese athletes.
The anti-China uproar comes less than a month before a tightly contested presidential election. Both main presidential candidates have weighed in, saying the South Korean skaters were the rightful winners and that the hanbok display is the latest evidence China is engaging in cultural appropriation.
“Do not covet the culture (of others),” warned ruling party candidate Lee Jae-myung on Facebook. In his own Facebook post, Yoon Seok-youl, the main conservative candidate, accused Beijing of a broad effort to “subjugate and incorporate Korean history into China.”
The incident reflects growing animosity toward what many South Koreans feel is China’s distortion of history in order to claim South Korean culture, such as the hanbok. Recent years have also seen eruptions of nationalist-tinged anger over Chinese state media claims that kimchi, a fermented cabbage dish ubiquitous in Korea, originated in China.
Underpinning the tensions are wider concerns about China’s growing economic and military strength, and its more combative stance toward its neighbors, which analysts say is Beijing’s attempt to reassert its position as a dominant regional power.
Things were not always this tense. In 2015, only 37% of South Koreans had a negative view of China, according to data from the Pew Research Center. By 2020, that figure had more than doubled to 75%. Recent opinion polls suggest South Korean perceptions of China are now roughly equal to views about Japan, Korea’s former colonial ruler.
South Korea-China ties especially deteriorated after 2017, when Seoul installed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense U.S. missile defense system, known as THAAD, to counter the threat posed by North Korea. Beijing objected to the deployment and waged a painful campaign of economic retaliation.
Perceptions of China have especially worsened among younger South Koreans, “who were born in a time of China’s rise and felt its overarching influence everywhere,” said Go Min-hee, who teaches political science and international relations at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University.
For many South Koreans, China’s display of the hanbok dress during the Olympics opening ceremony hit a particularly sensitive nerve — although the controversy may not be immediately apparent to outside observers.
For its part, China said the hanbok display was not meant to be a statement about its cultural origins. The hanbok-clad performer, Chinese officials insisted, was only meant to represent ethnic Koreans — one of dozens of China's ethnic minority groups featured in the parade.
Some South Koreans sympathize with that view, saying the hanbok also should belong to the Korean diaspora, including the around 2 million ethnic Koreans living in China. “What exactly was this Korean Chinese participant supposed to wear?” asked an editorial in the left-leaning Hankyoreh newspaper.
South Koreans, however, became upset in part because of China’s long-standing efforts to claim Korea’s ancient kingdoms as part of its own national history. The territory of the Korean kingdoms, known as Goguryeo and Balhae, overlap with what is now part of modern China.
From Koreans' perspective, claiming these Korean kingdoms as a small part of a bigger and more important historical Chinese entity is extremely offensive, said Darcie Draudt, a postdoctoral fellow at the George Washington Institute of Korean Studies.
“The issue of sovereignty is at the heart of it. Korea has been ‘border insecure’ since Japan colonized it. And then it was divided, with north and south cut off. And then you must consider all the Koreans now in China, Manchuria, Russia, and elsewhere. So, then it becomes tied into national division, in a sense,” she added.
Major political issue
The Olympics controversies have become a major campaign talking point in Seoul, raising the possibility that anti-China sentiment could be exploited for political gains ahead of the March 9 vote.
Yoon, the conservative candidate, had already spoken in blunter terms about China. In December, he declared “most South Korean people, especially younger ones, do not like China.” He has also called for additional THAAD deployments in South Korea.
Lee, the ruling party candidate, says South Korea must maintain a balance in its relationship between the United States and China. But Lee too has taken a more adversarial approach toward Beijing this week, promising to “strongly crack down” on Chinese vessels fishing illegally off South Korea’s coast.
The China issue is not likely to be decisive in the South Korean election, say observers, who note that both campaigns remain focused on domestic issues.
“Over the long run, however, I think that fueling the anti-Chinese sentiment will backfire,” said Go. “The complexity of Korea-China relations will be a significant burden to the incoming administration.”