SEOUL — The controversies began during the Opening Ceremonies when a Chinese performer wore Korea’s traditional attire, the “hanbok” — reviving a long-running online dispute over the provenance of certain cultural items found in both countries, including kimchi, a staple Korean dish made of fermented cabbage.
Then, two South Korean speedskaters were disqualified in a competition that Chinese athletes eventually won. Protesters rallied in Seoul, tearing up Chinese flags by hand. Even fans of the K-pop superstar band BTS rallied in defense of the skaters. Chinese commentators responded by criticizing South Korean athletes and journalists as “shameless.”
The Olympics have become a new focus for mounting anti-China sentiment in South Korea, particularly among the younger Koreans leading the online attacks. The controversies have even spilled into the political arena, with presidential candidates chiming in on the anti-China discourse to appeal to the youth swing vote — complicating the future of diplomatic and economic ties between the two nations.
“Young and liberal South Koreans see China as an unfair player in the global arena, based on what they have seen about Beijing’s crackdown on free press, social activism and democracy protests in Hong Kong,” said Ha Nam-seok, a professor of Chinese language and culture at the University of Seoul.
He said the new wave of animosity against China among young Koreans is distinct from the anti-communist sentiments of older South Koreans dating from the Cold War era. Young Koreans have been angered by the apparent violation of “fairness,” a core value to those who live amid the harsh competition of capitalist and democratic South Korea, experts say.
These perceptions of unfairness have been building since 2017, when South Korea suffered an unofficial economic retaliation from China after Seoul embraced a plan to deploy the U.S. antimissile system known as Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD. South Korean companies with a Chinese presence faced boycotts, package trips from China to South Korea were suspended, and K-pop singers disappeared from Chinese television.
A survey late last year of some 1,000 South Koreans found that China was seen as the most threatening country, with 72 percent of the respondents pointing to their Asian neighbor as “the biggest threat.” In an analysis of the survey, Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification cited “China’s coercive and disrespectful attitude towards neighboring countries” as the reason for the negative views.
The latest spat also happens to be taking place during election season. After a Chinese performer was seen in a hanbok at the Olympics, the South Korean governing party’s presidential candidate, Lee Jae-myung, warned China to “not covet the culture” of Korea. The main opposition candidate, Yoon Suk-yeol, said he “shares the fury and frustration felt by the South Korean athletes” over the “biased judgment” in speedskating.
“Amid a close race, the candidates are making use of the anti-China sentiments for political gain, which is a risky move, considering how China is an important economic and diplomatic partner for South Korea,” said Ha, the academic.
South Korea’s economy is heavily dependent on China, which is both its largest source of imports and largest export destination. On the diplomacy front, South Korea needs support from North Korea’s ally China to persuade Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons and promote peaceful relations.
The cultural row between the neighbors also is a problem for China as Beijing seeks to strengthen its ties in Asia in the face of growing competition from the United States, Yang Yanlong, a scholar at Shandong University in China who studies relations between China and Korea, wrote in a blog post.
The Olympics is a missed opportunity to promote friendly exchanges between the two neighbors, especially with the current growth of nationalist vitriol, he said.
“We have to wake up to the fact that the cultural and people-to-people exchanges between China and Korea have far lagged behind our close economic ties, which indirectly hampered the strengthening of political mutual trust,” Yang wrote.
Chinese commentators have responded fiercely to the South Korean attacks. Nationalists have countered that it’s the Koreans who have been appropriating China’s culture for centuries. They resuscitated an older nickname for South Korea, “thief country,” claiming that the hanbok is essentially the Chinese qipao, also known as the cheongsam. Others complained about Koreans they had encountered in China, criticizing them as loud and unruly. One user asked, “Are Koreans human?”
The Chinese Embassy in South Korea said that the performer was wearing the hanbok to represent China’s Korean minority and that China respects Korean history and culture. About 2 million ethnic Koreans live in northeast China.
It was the disqualification of South Korean short track speedskaters Hwang Dae-heon and Lee June-seo that particularly struck a chord in the country, where the sport is extremely popular. On Feb. 7, the two were penalized for illegal contact in the semifinals of the men’s 1,000-meter race. Chinese skaters eventually took the gold and silver medals in the finals.
The penalty against the two skaters, especially world record holder Hwang, led Koreans to allege that there was unfair officiating in favor of the host nation. The South Korean delegation to the Beijing Games lodged an appeal to the International Skating Union and International Olympic Committee. South Korea’s local media also reacted angrily to the decision, and a crude insult against Chinese people was trending on Twitter.
Later that day, a Chinese student in the South Korean city of Busan was attacked by two Korean men, according to local news reports. The Busan police said the attack had no apparent connection to the Olympics controversy, but Beijing’s Foreign Ministry said it was “paying great attention to the matter.”
The animosity had reached such a level that when, two days later, South Korean skater Cha Min-kyu reached down to dust the podium with a hand before standing on it to receive his silver medal, his action was immediately slammed by Chinese commentators as a gesture of disrespect in protest of the race results.
In response to the consecutive points of friction, Trigger Trend, a Chinese blog for social and economic analysis, accused Korean media of bias, Korean netizens of vulgarity and the Korean public generally of being oversensitive, with “glass hearts.”
“It can be said that the attitude of South Korean politics towards China has never been so harsh as it is now,” the article said.
“The disharmony between China and South Korea during the Winter Olympics is no accident,” it said. “We can conclude that this is just the beginning.”