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29.09.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

PRC-ROK Relations: Cultural Exchanges


After THAAD was deployed in the Republic of Korea in 2016, China restricted access to its market for South Korean (pop) culture content, including games, movies, TV series and popular music. Korean artists were banned from touring in China. However, the Chinese government did not issue any official decrees on this matter: restrictions were imposed by rejecting requests for permits. In October 2017, following talks at the level of foreign policy chiefs, there were preconditions for the lifting of sanctions, but in fact South Korean films have never been approved for screening in six years.

Late 2021 and early 2022 was a time of limited progress. On November 30, 2021, director Jung Se-Kyo’s Oh! My Gran was approved for screening by the State Film Committee of the People’s Republic of China.   The last time a South Korean film had been released in China was September 2015.

In addition to the release of the film, South Korean actor Lee Dong-wook starred for the December issue of Chinese GQ magazine, and a South Korean company was granted permission to provide mobile gaming services in December 2021.

In early January 2022, state-run online video platform Hunan Broadcasting System Mango TV aired the 2017 Korean fantasy romance series Saimdang, Memoir of Colors.

The South Korean government welcomed the move, calling it positive progress. Chinese Ambassador to the ROK, Xing Haiming, also expressed the hope that more films and TV dramas would be broadcast in both countries, and that cultural and art groups would also be able to perform in each other’s countries. China’s flagship newspaper Global Times described the film’s release as a clear signal of improved cultural ties between the countries on the eve of the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations, since formally the years 2021 and 2022 have been designated as a period of bilateral cultural exchanges.

But the experts remained cautious. As expert and critic Ha Jae-kyung said, “We only have two cases. They look like gestures of appeasement,” and it is therefore too early to say that the Chinese government intends to change its hardline stance on Korean content amid a nationwide crackdown on the entertainment industry and other sectors.

What kind of crackdown? For example, the National Radio and Television Administration has banned the broadcasting of men who do not look masculine enough, in particular by coloring their eyes and lips. The lucrative “idol culture,” with its roots in South Korea and K-pop music, has thus come under attack. Similar requirements were imposed on online platforms, which hit online celebrities, who were also guided by South Korean standards of male beauty.

In March 2022, three more South Korean TV series began streaming on the Chinese equivalent of social media, and Something in the Rain, starring actress Song Ye-jin, became the first Korean TV series to gain approval from the Beijing broadcasting regulator in five years.

Even after that, however, some experts are of the opinion that once the solemn dates have passed and relations between the two countries deteriorate because of those same THAADs, Korean content will come under pressure again.

In addition, alongside the official bans there is the illegal distribution of copyrighted South Korean cultural content in the PRC.  Both South Korean NGOs and official structures have raised the issue.

For example, on October 7, 2021, the ROK Foreign Ministry sent an official letter to China expressing concern about the illegal distribution of Netflix hit series Squid Game. According to ministry spokesperson Choi Yong Sam, there is evidence that many Chinese watched the popular thriller on third-party sites, as Netflix is not available in China.

In January 2022, Netflix’s zombie apocalypse series All of Us Are Dead was stolen by pirates – a pirated copy was sold on Taobao, one of PRC’s largest online shopping platforms, renamed Zombie Campus.  All episodes were also made available for free via dozens of unofficial streaming services and the popular microblogging platform Weibo.

Part of the “cultural exchanges” are also accusations leveled against Beijing of cultural appropriation and a desire to steal the country’s history and culture. There is a little less hysterical material here, the author feels. But in September 2022, the National Museum of China was accused of distorting Korean history by excluding information on two ancient kingdoms – Goguryeo (37 BC – 668 AD) and Balhae (Parhae) (698-926 AD) – from its chronology of ancient Korean history. In the aftermath, patriotic activists, including Professor Seo Kyoung-duk, who has been implicated in every such scandal, caused a stir, arguing that Beijing’s aim was to allegedly distort historical facts in its favor and present Goguryeo’s history as part of Chinese, not Korean, history. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also protested strongly, demanding that the relevant information be corrected immediately, although it is not very clear how it happened that no one noticed such a thing – there should have been diplomats at the exhibition opening.

The problem is that when Silla unified the three Korean states with Chinese help, most of Goguryeo’s territory remained with China, and Korea did not reach its current borders at all until the 15th century. And given that a large part of the country was located in the territory of modern China, the history of Goguryeo is studied as part of the general Chinese history.

In response to speculation that the PRC is “apparently re-launching the Northeast Project”, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning said, “The Goguryeo issue is an academic issue. Views regarding academic issues can be shared and discussed in a professional way in the academic sphere. There is no need to hype it up politically”. The National Museum of China has since removed the controversial chronological table from the exhibition and even sent an email to the National Museum of Korea confirming that the item had been removed. The Chinese Foreign Ministry also assured that “this incident had no ulterior intention. We clarified we were on the same page of the ‘Korea-China verbal agreement over historical issues of 2004’ by taking necessary measures before the issue becomes more complicated.”

The Korean activists, however, have not had enough, as “China didn’t publicly admit or correct its mistakes but rather chose to remove the table altogether.” As Seo Kyoung-duk said on this occasion, “We cannot simply feel relieved. Taking down the table without any apology or promise to correct it means they are not admitting their attempts to distort history. It’s just a maneuver to avoid the issue at hand”.

In fact, just like in the case of professional fighters against Japan under Moon Jae-in, a group of professional fighters against China has now formed, and these are often the same people like Professor Seo. Sinophobia adds to their notoriety, and cultural content is likely to continue to give cause for “hype” as was the case with the Joseon Exorcist series. Here’s hoping that President Yoon’s pragmatism will curb this trend.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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