In September 2020 two scandals unfolded simultaneously in South Korea, both of which can tell us a lot about popular attitudes to racism and bullying in that country.
On the one hand there is the fuss about the singer Lee Hyori, who, talking on MBC’s “Hangout with Yoo” chat show claimed that she want to build up her international fan base and plans to adopt the stage name Mao, at which many Chinese netizens took offence.
As they see it, she was mocking the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong, and responded with comments such as “Learn to have respect for others” and “Why are you making jokes about a great figure from another country?” The singer’s Instagram account received more than 100,000 “hostile” comments in two days.
In response South Korean Internet users accused China of conducting a politicized campaign of intimidation against the singer, and taking her comment out of context. “Lee did not use any insulting terms, she was just talking about a possible stage name.” “And Mao is a surname – it does not just belong to Mao Zedong.”
Foremost among those accusing China and its people of playing political games was the Voluntary Agency Network of Korea, or VANK, () which started an on-line petition: “Stop China’s cyber chauvinism which lynched a Korean celebrity!” “We oppose the chauvinistic attitude of attacking others in the name of nationalism, which includes interpreting even the smallest part of an expression in the most vicious and offensive way,” the petition reads.
All this seems rather strange when we consider that VANK’s main purpose is to condemn any statements – form Japan or elsewhere – which it sees as falsifying history, and to mastermind strident hate campaigns over the Internet whenever any official figure casts doubt on the official Korean line concerning comfort women or any text book, from any country, makes the mistake of referring to the Liancourt Rocks as “Japanese”. At the moment its main campaign is its demand that Japan prohibits the use of any national symbolism during the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games, – since, in view of the territorial disputes between South Korea and Japan, it considers that the mere fact of flying the Japanese flag constitutes “political, religious or racial propaganda”, as prohibited by the IOC.
They have a particular hatred for Japan’s Rising Sun Flag, which was widely used by Imperial regime during the Second World War. Although that flag was used by both the Imperial Navy and the Merchant Navy, the Korean patriots are campaigning for its use to be banned in all circumstances, on the ground that it is a “flag of war criminals”, and a symbol of aggression that is highly insulting for Koreans, for whom it is a reminder of a tragic period in their history – the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula between 1910 and 1945.
It is true that MBC has deleted Lee’s comment from the materials on its web site, stating that it has no wish to “justify the views of any individual” and that it wishes to prevent any further unpleasantness. Going by the comments left by viewers who watched the video before it was taken down, the TV company did the right thing – it is very possible that the angry reaction was provoked by Lee’s tone, as much as her words.
The other incident involves a 19-year old Filipina social media star, Bella Poarch, who has more than 15 million followers on TikTok and 2.4 million on Instagram. She recently posted a photo in which she can be seen displaying her tattoo of a heart surrounded by the sun’s rays – a design which resembles the Rising Sun flag. When her Korean fans commented that they found her tattoo insulting, she apologized in several posts, and asked them to forgive her for her choice of tattoo pledging to get rid of it. She has said that she did not know the history behind the design, and has promised to educate others about it.
But the enraged patriots were not satisfied with her response, and a number of “accounts which local media had identified as belonging to Korean users” were used to post comments containing racial insults directed first against Bella Poarch herself and then against Filipinos in general. These comments contained many provocative expressions – with “poor country, non-educated short people” being among the least offensive. Some of them stooped so low as to call Filipinos’ skin color “disgusting” and stated that most Filipinos resident in South Korea worked in domestic service and that servants should know their place.
These insults met with an angry response in the Philippines, where hashtags such as #ApologizetoFilipinos, #ApologizeKorea, #CancelKorea and #Cancelracism started trending. As of September 10 more than 350,000 tweets with the hashtag #CancelKorea had been sent.
A number of Filipinos were harshly critical of South Korea and its people, giving examples of racism they had experienced in the country – which is home to many Filipino migrant workers.
Several Twitter users commented that Koreans should be grateful to the Filipino veterans who served in the 1950-53 Korean War, fighting for a country that, up until this conflict, had been largely ignored and of little interest to the international community.
And, when it comes to insults, Filipinos showed that they can give as good as they take. In response to Korean slurs about “short people” and “darkies”, Filipinos hit back with comments on Koreans’ “plastic faces” – a reference to the popularity of cosmetic surgery in Korea – or made fun of Koreans’ attempts to speak poor English at every possible opportunity, rather than using their own language.
And, once again, the subjects of racism and discrimination dominated public discussion in South Korea, with many complaints about the indignities endured by a nation that had suffered so much at the hands of the Japanese, as well as speculation that the trolls had official support from their government.
The public outrage in South Korea is based on double standards – the present writer is reminded of the old Ukrainian joke about two young men who, after a few too many drinks, are walking along the street and talking about who to beat up, just for a laugh. One of them asks- But what if they beat us up instead? And his friend answers – Why? What have we ever done to them? It might be worth translating that joke into Korean – maybe a few of the hotheads might see something of themselves in those two tanked-up Ukrainians.
Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, leading science associate of the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East of the RAS, specially for the internet magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.