While periodically noting the pearls of South Korean nationalism, the author cannot help but bring up the analogy of the Russian-Ukrainian borscht dispute over Korean kimchi cabbage, which Seoul actively promotes as a national treasure and symbol.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a United Nations body, officially recognized an industry standard for kimchi in 2001 that specified ingredients, food additive labels, and the name of the product.
The entire process of making kimchi was declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2013 as “an integral part of Korean cuisine”.
However, since the Korean word “kimchi” is not written in hieroglyphics, the word used in China for it is “pao cai,” which means pickled vegetables made using a slightly different technology. As a result, quite often when translated into English, pao cai is corrected to kimchi, resulting in nationalists accusing China of cultural appropriation and an attempt to steal cultural patrimony.
Since November 2020, there has been another similar cabbage war in PRC-ROK relations. It all started with the announcement in the Chinese media that the Sichuan provincial government had received International Organization for Standardization (ISO) certification for its kimchi (actually pao cai) making process. However, the translation error was turned by Korean nationalists into a scandal that spread all over the Internet. The ROK media claimed that the English-language state propaganda newspaper Global Times reported this in an article titled “China sets international kimchi standard; Korea, its sovereign country, shamed.”
For nine days straight, South Korea was storming. According to the ROK Ministry of Agriculture, kimchi is a central part of Korean food culture, and its preparation process has been recognized as a global standard for almost two decades. The government has promised to step up efforts to promote kimchi by conducting scientific research on its health benefits and supporting cultural events to promote related business.
Choi Hak-jeong, acting director general of the State World Kimchi Institute, said that after the popularity of kimchi grew internationally, it became the subject of controversy because of unfounded claims by the Chinese media.
As Seo Kyung-dok, a professor at Sunsin Women’s University, stated, China lacks efforts to understand the culture and history of surrounding peoples, and therefore both government and civic groups must take strong measures against Chinese actions to remove cultural treasures from Korea. “As South Korea’s cultural content expands its influence globally, it seems that China is making efforts to claim that such content has been traced back to them.”
Incidentally, Professor Seo was responsible for various publicity campaigns aimed at raising “global awareness of Korean history and culture,” especially about the “East Sea” (as the nationalists believe the Sea of Japan should be called) and the Dokdo Islands.
In addition, even the departing U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris joined the discussion. On December 10, 2020, he appeared in a video posted by the Asian Society of Korea figuring out how to make kimchi with celebrity chef Lee Hye-jung. Harris described South Korea as the home of kimchi, which he prepared with the hashtag #originalKimchifromKorea.
The Internet has also become a battleground. Korean patriots saw this as “part of the Northeast Project, China’s ambition to incorporate Korean culture into its own and distort history,” claiming that Beijing would soon attribute the invention of pizza to itself. Meanwhile, Chinese Web users claimed that kimchi is a Chinese dish, and this is common knowledge.
The issue, as it turned out, also had an economic background: Koreans are increasingly consuming products made in China. Korean kimchi exports continued to grow, but at the same time kimchi imports from China also increased. And it is said to greatly exceed the amount of kimchi that is made in Korea.
On the one hand, kimchi exports from South Korea reached a record high in 2020. As of November, kimchi sales abroad totaled $131.52 million, surpassing $106 million for all of 2019, according to the Korea Customs Service. Japan accounted for 49.3% at $64.95 million, followed by the U.S. and Hong Kong with sales of $21.04 million and $7 million.
On the other hand, the kimchi trade deficit between January and October 2020 was $7.82 million, as exports jumped 36% to $119 million and imports jumped 20% to $126 million. The deficit has continued for 10 consecutive years, and 99% of kimchi imports come from China.
Experts attributed the surge in kimchi exports to the popularity of fermented food, which is believed to boost the body’s immunity during the COVID-19 outbreak.
More recent data has not really corrected the picture. Foreign shipments of kimchi for all of 2020 totaled $144.51 million, up 37.6% from a year earlier. This amount breaks the previous annual record of $106.61 million recorded in 2012. Korean kimchi imports rose 16.4 percent to $152.43 million last year, bringing the deficit to an eight-year low of $7.91 million.
In December, the Global Times attributed the problem to a translation error, noting that they were talking about different dishes. In addition, the newspaper reported that Baidu Baike, the Chinese equivalent of Wikipedia, removed the phrase “Korean kimchi came from China” at the request of So Kyung-dok mentioned above, adding that Baidu Baike can be edited by any registered user. At the same time, the article shifted the responsibility for provoking controversy to South Korea.
But then, in January, top blogger Li Ziqi (14 million subscribers on YouTube and 27.3 million subscribers on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter) published a video in which she makes kimchi. The #ChineseFood hashtag is used in the video description. In the comments, Korean Internet users accused Lee of stealing their national dish, while Chinese users reminded Koreans that kimchi is not only eaten in Korea, and that when Lee Ziqi made a video about making beer, but no Europeans attacked her.
Almost simultaneously, on January 3, 2021, Zhang Jun, China’s representative to the United Nations, posted a picture of kimchi on his Twitter account. “Winter life can also be colorful and enjoyable. One option is to try homemade kimchi yourself. It’s not too difficult. My colleagues said it was very good”.
In response, Seoul launched a counter-action. The embassies of Hungary, Denmark, and Belgium posted videos and photos of their ambassadors preparing the dish using a kit provided by the Korean Culture and Information Service. Of course, it was emphasized that it was the true “taste of Korea“. Though, as it turned out later, a branch of the Ministry of Culture surveyed dozens of foreign embassies in Seoul to see if they would be interested in purchasing a set with pickled cabbage and spices to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Eighteen accepted the offer, but only three, not counting Harris, responded.
On January 18, 2021, Seo Kyung-dok announced that a newspaper advertisement promoting kimchi was printed in the American and international editions of the New York Times: “The culture of kimchi making was inscribed on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage in 2013. Historically, this iconic food of Korea and its culture dates back thousands of years”. “Instead of trying to refute every Chinese statement about kimchi, we decided that a more nuanced response would be to tell the world the exact facts about this dish in a concise and visually striking way,” Seo told the Korea Times. – That’s why we didn’t even mention China in the announcement. We wanted this to be a chance for Korea to develop its own effective PR strategy rather than just being gripped by anger.” In addition, the staff patriot plans to release a series of YouTube videos in various languages to explain the exact history and culture of the dish.
It would be funny if it were not so sad, but the more serious issues of Seoul-Beijing relations are in the next article.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.