In previous texts, we have mentioned a strong anti-Chinese trend in contemporary South Korean propaganda, especially coming from “social organizations” that portray the full-time Voice of the People. At the same time, the propaganda aims to foster domestic disgust toward the Chinese, and any attempt to show something Chinese positively becomes an occasion for public criticism.
The most prominent example is the situation with Joseon Exorcist dorama of the late March 2021. Its plot is slightly reminiscent of the famous American Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the dorama was supposed to repeat the success of the 2019 Kingdom series where an unnamed Korean prince tries to prevent the coming zombie apocalypse at the court. The story’s main character is one of the most revered sovereigns in history. The crown prince, who later becomes King Sejong, tries to find a way to fight against evil spirits that possess people, including his sovereign father, and make them commit atrocities. To this end, the prince visits a gisaeng house in the northern lands near the Chinese border and meets up with an exorcist from the West. The plot is curious. What could go wrong?
Even after the first episode, patriotically-minded citizens became hysterical. First of all, there is a terrible distortion of history and mockery: how can a candidate to the role of the most ideal ruler in Korean history fight evil spirits? Secondly, the prince often wears Chinese clothes and eats Chinese -horrors!- rather than native Korean food when meeting at a pleasure house. And this is just when Beijing is trying to appropriate “our” kimchi and hanbok, declaring them part of China’s immaterial patrimony!
Interestingly, one of the leading critics of the series was Seo Kyoung-duk, Professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul known to be an advanced agitator on historical issues and has been actively involved in the kimchi primacy wars. She demanded that the Japanese prime minister drink a glass of recycled water from the Fukushima reactor live on air to prove its safety.
Professor Seo seems to arise wherever there is a need to be hysterical about cultural appropriation or insults to Korean spirituality. However, during the period described, the level of admiration for the Great Ming was high, and Korean aristocrats wore Chinese clothing frequently. Seo Kyoung-duk rang the alarm, for the TV series gave the Chinese another reason to claim dominance over Korean culture. The added accusation was that the screenwriter had already remade popular Chinese comedies in the Korean way, systematically denigrating Korean culture and the kings of Joseon, and the company where she worked was largely dependent on Chinese money. Joseon Exorcist was co-produced by YG Studioplex, Crave Works, and Lotte Cultureworks. YG Studioplex is a television production company co-founded by YG Entertainment and Barami Bunda in April 2017, although the entertainment agency owns 99.09 percent of the production firm. However, the two largest shareholders of YG Entertainment are two Chinese companies, Shanghai Fengying Business Consultant Partnership and Tencent Mobility.
As a result, a petition was posted on an online bulletin of the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae, calling for the termination of the TV production. This was enough to cause the next episode’s rating to drop from 8.9 percent to 6.9 percent, sponsors to pull ads from the show, and after the second episode, it was shut down altogether despite 80% of the show having been filmed.
Professional patriots have described the fate of Joseon Exorcist as “a wake-up call against threat of cultural infiltration by heavy-handed China.” Equally, a message to Korean studios not to rejoice in Chinese investment, which supposedly leads to an “offensive charm.” In this context, the show was compared to the scandal surrounding Mulan, when Disney “turned a blind eye to human rights violations in exchange for Chinese investment” and dared to shoot the movie in Xinjiang, thus indirectly supporting the persecution of ethnic minorities.
At the same time, there was a wave in other TV series, where patriotic keyboard warriors began to look for any hint of hidden advertising for China or Chinese products. This time, even the fact that the characters eat Korean food, but made in China, caused outrage, so that the show’s management condones cultural appropriation. Of course, the controversial scenes featuring Chinese products were removed.
Another related trend is that many TV series or soap operas are based on Chinese novels or dramas. From the point of view of some producers, Korean remakes of successful Chinese series reduce risk and ensure success. The patriots, on the other hand, argue that it is about Chinese money, not Chinese quality and that Chinese sponsors are thus trying to enslave the Korean media industry and impose their interpretation of historical events on it.
Some in the “patriotic” media even call the “cultural invasion” an analog of the so-called “Northeast Project,” which was supported by Beijing in 2002-2007 and is still criticized as an attempt by Beijing to distort Korean history and make it part of Chinese history. According to Seo Kyung-Duk, “When China began its Northeast Project in the early 2000s, Korea’s anti-China sentiment was largely about historical issues… But now the debate is about broader cultural issues, involving a much younger generation that is savvy about communicating via the internet.
The South Korean press has described this project somewhat loosely. Still, its essence was de facto to revise several national policy elements and include the Chinese and all peoples living in the territory of the current PRC, within the concept of “China.” This is not entirely clear for a Russian or English-speaking audience because the same-rooted words denote “China” and “Chinese.” However, in the original, the Chinese as a nation is referred to by Han and China as a state by Zhōngguó or Zhōnghuá.
Korean nationalists do not understand that Chinese nationalism is not ethnically based but civically based, and Chinese is not the same as Han. What is commonly translated as “Chinese nation” in Chinese sounds like “Zhōnghuá minzu”, not “han minzu,” and “Zhōnghuá” includes all nations that live within China, whether they be Tibetans, Miao, or ethnic Koreans. Something similar happened in the Soviet Union when the history of the Soviet Union was not identical to the history of Russia and included the accounts of other countries that are now in Soviet territory.
As a result, for example, the Northeast Project significantly changed attitudes toward the Mongols and Manchus. If the former historical narrative described them as foreign invaders against whom the Chinese fought, they are still Chinese, though not Han, ruling dynasties. Accordingly, the history of all the peoples whose states were located wholly or partially within the territory of the modern PRC is perceived as part of Chinese history, and the culture of these peoples are not part of the Han but the common Chinese (Zhōnghuá) cultural heritage.
In this regard, it is worth remembering the existence of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, which is home to more than one million ethnic Koreans. This diaspora ranks first and second after the American diaspora in terms of numbers. And because these ethnic Koreans also make kimchi and wear hanbok, it allows Beijing to declare kimchi and hanbok part of China’s national heritage.
Although the most critical stumbling block in the Korean-Chinese disputes of the 2000s was the Goguryeo kingdom, the core of which was instead located on the Korean peninsula, its territory covered Manchuria and the Liaodong peninsula, and some famous monuments of that time are located on Chinese soil. As a result, Korean nationalists said that the project was “a thinly veiled attempt by the Chinese to justify a potential takeover of Goguryeo’s history and any accompanying land and cultural claims under the guise of an academic research project. In other words, China not only intends to steal Goguryeo’s history but also intends to use this fact to seize it on that basis in the event of mass unrest and the collapse of the regime in North Korea.
Not only Korean nationalists but also supporters of “global values” speak in a similar vein. From their point of view, Korea was part of Pax Americana for 70 years. Still, with Xi Jinping’s attempt to revive Pax Sinica, Beijing has a chance to drag the Korean Peninsula back into its sphere of influence. Meanwhile, historically among the countries surrounding China, Korea most closely fits the definition of a vassal state.
This includes talk that the Chinese government has introduced a new game licensing system that allows for ideological focus. According to the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA), the Propaganda Division of the CPC Central Committee in a new regulation gives five criteria by which a game will be graded from 0 to 5: ideology, cultural significance, originality, quality, and development level. Moreover, in fantasy games, there are formally Chinese characters dressed in hanbok or similar clothing. Or that the Chinese are allegedly stealing Korean cultural content on YouTube by extending their copyright to those Korean songs that sound similar to Chinese songs because the particular piece of music on YouTube originated in the Chinese version earlier than in the Korean version.
But there is more to the discourse of cultural appropriation, the contest of values, or the Northeastern project. There are articles about China in the South Korean central media all the time, and every time something humanly disgusting is described, not just reposts about internment camps in Xinjiang or fakes by Falun Gong followers.
Then a teacher bullied children in such a way that he “firmly pulled the hair out of a nine-year-old boy, and the child’s skull was partially scalped, leaving him with severe internal bleeding and swelling. The viral video shows a naked man waist deep in a pool of brownish liquid that was filled with cabbages where kimchi is being salted, showing the level of unsanitary conditions, and where a visiting Chinese man throws his fists at strangers. Meanwhile, Yersinia enterocolitica, food poisoning bacteria were detected in 15 out of 289 kimchi products imported from China.
Another example is the enormous media fuss made about the wife of the Belgian Ambassador who hit a clothing store employee in Seoul when the latter accused her of stealing. Indignation over diplomats who “can beat Koreans with impunity under the guise of diplomatic immunity” knew no bounds because the ambassador’s wife, Xiang Xueqiu, is Chinese by nationality. Even though the ambassador publicly apologized and the Embassy said that he would cooperate with the investigation, it was still seen as a trick.
The hysteria at the beginning of May over the possible impact of the remnants of the Chinese Long March 5 rocket on Korean territory cannot be overlooked. Although in the end, nothing fell on Korea, the noise was at the level of the make up story of the 2000s that debris from the North Korean rocket allegedly fell in Russian territorial waters and caused an environmental disaster there.
This kind of “culture war” aimed at fostering hatred of China is already beginning to take its toll on the economy and politics. For example, a large-scale tourist complex in Gangwon Province that was supposed to exploit Chinese themes was abandoned after a petition campaign by conservatives.
According to a survey conducted by the East Asia Institute: between 2015 and 2020, the percentage of Koreans who “feel bad” about China rose from 16% to 40%, while the number of those who “feel good about China” fell from 50% to 20%. And young Koreans dislike China the most. Among those surveyed between the ages of 18 and 29, 45% have a negative view of China.
Moreover, there is now an active campaign to deny citizenship to the children of Chinese born in Korea. However, please read the following articles to see how a country that likes to portray itself as a victim of racism doesn’t mind dabbling in it.
We will talk about the prospects of this trend. Seo Kyoung-Duk believes that the conflict will continue “as long as Beijing maintains its Chinese-centric beliefs, which relate to the ideology that China is the economic, political and cultural center of the world. And the author partly agrees with her, somewhat reworded – until the two nationalist narratives stop the battle. And the historical and cultural disputes involving Korea are very long-term.
But there is another aspect. The author sees a gradual preparation of public opinion for a U-turn from a demonstration of balancing between the PRC and the United States to one of unequivocal support for America. Moon’s independent politics ends when there is too much knocking on the table from Washington, but the masses still need to be prepared, if not to hate, then to despise China. It is no coincidence that while Sinophobia is usually actively fanned by conservatives, in whose interpretation Moon has sold out to China (it has been written about this more than once), the anti-China trend described in the examples above is fanned not so much by the conservative media as by pro-government NGOs.
The only question is how soon the degree of confrontation between the PRC and the ROK will reach the Korean-Japanese level?
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”.