Anti-China sentiment runs high in South Korea during Beijing Winter Olympics

Protesters demonstrating against China's human rights record and the ongoing Beijing Winter Olympic Games in front of the Chinese embassy in Seoul on Feb 9, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL - Competition has been intense at the Beijing Winter Olympics, but that has spilled over into other areas in South Korea with citizens, scholars and even politicians engaging in China bashing.

Many South Koreans are fuming at what they perceive to be the unfair disqualification of two of their short-track speedskaters who finished first and second in the semi-finals. The host country, they believe, has abused home ground advantage to secure more medals.

China has also been denounced for "stealing our hanbok", the Korean traditional costume after it was featured as the attire of one of China's 55 minority groups during the opening ceremony of the Games on Feb 4.

Student Park Eun-ji, 22, best summed up the general sentiment among South Koreans.

"There was a lot of biased judgment during the Olympics, so I was sad and angry," she told The Straits Times.

"And it seems wrong to introduce the hanbok as Chinese at a world festival such as the Olympics. Chinese culture is already so diverse, I don't understand why China keeps coveting our Korean culture," she added.

Hardly a day goes by now without the issue making headlines in local media, sparking concern that 30 years of bilateral ties between the two countries could be damaged.

Experts say the brouhaha reflects distrust and pent-up frustrations built up over years of disputes between the two countries over history and culture.

The Chinese Embassy in Seoul has issued a rebuttal against the hanbok saga, asking South Korea to "respect the emotions of China's ethnic minorities including joseonjok", referring to ethnic Koreans living in China.

"The so-called 'cultural project' and 'cultural appropriation' are completely untenable," the embassy said, referring to what the Korean media described as efforts by China to whitewash history and claim Korean culture as its own.

Mr Chris Del Corso, the chargé d'affaires at the US embassy in Seoul, also entered the fray with a tweet: "What comes to mind when you think of Korea? Kimchi, K-pop, K-dramas… and of course hanbok".

The South Korean government has remained cautious, though, eager not to offend China and mindful of what occurred in 2017, when Beijing retaliated economically over Seoul's decision to allow the deployment of an anti-missile shield by the United States.

But young South Koreans are a lot less inhibited when it comes to voicing out against what they view as unfair bullying tactics and cultural impingement by their giant neighbour.

In recent years, as a rising China exerted its growing influence, spats have erupted between the two sides over kimchi, hanbok, the placement of Chinese products in Korean dramas, and even nationalistic statements made by Chinese members of K-pop groups.

Young Chinese netizens, fed on a nationalist narrative, have accused South Korea of being a "xiao tou guo", or thieving country. They have also attacked Korean celebrities who posted photos of themselves wearing the hanbok, or showed support for Korean speedskaters.

The frequent swipes have affected South Korean people's affinity towards China - the country's largest trade partner.

A study last week showed South Koreans viewed China less favourably than Japan, with the former receiving 26.5 points out of a 100 possible for favourability - lower than Japan's 30.7 points.

The team conducted the study, which involved 10,000 respondents, before the Winter Olympics began. It was led by sociology professor Shin Gi-wook of Stanford University who attributed China's low rating to cultural clashes and "China's lack of respect for South Korea".

The study also found that anti-China sentiments were stronger among young people. Prof Shin noted that this group grew up with liberal and democratic values, and hence were more critical of China which they saw as an authoritarian communist state.

Another recent study of people in their 20s resulted in China receiving 1.78 out of 10 points for favourability. China did better with those in their 30s, who gave it 1.93 points.

Tutor Kim Hyun-woo, 31, is among those angry with China which he said was "deleting, manipulating and distorting Korean history" and promoting the distorted version.

A performer in traditional Korean hanbok waving during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics on Feb 4, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

"I honestly think that the Chinese know better than anyone else that hanbok is Korean, because they've been watching Korean dramas, K-pop, and variety shows for a long time," he told ST. "It makes me angry to see the outpouring of malicious comments by Chinese people and how they aggressively blame Korea while ignoring the facts."

English professor Scott Shepherd of Chongshin University in Seoul, however, pointed out that China was home to about 2.5 million ethnic Koreans. It was in fact "celebrating the Korean culture of some of its citizens, not appropriating it", he said.

"The hanbok is truly a thing of beauty. It is something to be proud of, something to admire, and it is Korean," he wrote in a commentary in The Korea Times.

"But while it's vital to acknowledge China's past actions encroaching on Korea's culture and independence, it's equally important to accept that South Korea is not the only place where Koreans live," he said.

Previous "disputes" between South Koreans and Chinese


The 2003 Korean period drama Jewel In The Palace portrayed acupuncture as an indigenous Korean practice, but viewers from China insisted that it was a Chinese invention. The use of needles to treat ailments is known to have originated in China over 3,000 years ago before spreading to other countries.

Floor heating

The Koreans call it ondol, the Chinese call it kang. Both refer to a traditional floor heating system used to warm the house in cold months. But in 2014 when South Korea was considering whether to apply for Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) status for ondol, China's netizens protested. Eventually ondol received ICH status in 2018.


Participants preparing kimchi at a festival in Seoul on Dec 2, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

A spat over kimchi erupted in late 2020 after China successfully lobbied for a new ISO listing for developing, transporting and storing paocai (fermented vegetables), but state media trumpeted it as "an international standard for the kimchi industry led by China". Korean netizens accused China of stealing their food culture, while Chinese netizens insisted kimchi was also eaten in China. Paocai and kimchi are different, but the Chinese word paocai also refers to kimchi. To ease confusion, South Korea's Culture Ministry in July last year decided to use the Chinese word xinqi (which literally means spicy and unique) to refer to kimchi.


Also in 2020, a dispute over hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) ensued after Korean netizens pointed out that clothes that appeared in the Chinese period drama Royal Feast were similar to the hanbok. The drama's producer Yu Zheng, however, insisted "this is definitely hanfu (traditional clothing of the Han people of China) of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)". He said the hanbok was adapted from the hanfu when Korean kingdom Goryeo (918-1392) was a vassal state under China. Korean netizens insisted it was uniquely Korean.

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