Earlier this year, the South Korean boyband BTS faced a backlash from Chinese state media and internet users for allegedly insulting China at a Korea Society event. In prerecord remarks accepting an award for promoting U.S.-Korean relations Kim Nam-joon of BTS said, “We will always remember the history of pain that our two nations shared together and the sacrifices of countless men and women.” The backlash was quick and pushed Samsung to remove BTS branded products from Chinese platforms and other companies moved quickly to remove images of BTS from their Chinese websites to avoid being caught in the backlash.
What on the surface might seem like a random dispute over the remarks of a K-pop star, however, is becoming increasingly common between South Korea and China as social media changes the way that states and their publics interact. It also taps into China’s adoption of a more confrontational “wolf warrior” attitude.
Before social media, information was largely consumed passively and separately. But social media allows the citizens of one country to directly engage the citizens of another and try to shape the understanding and acceptance of facts.
The controversies in part seem to be driven by a new, more aggressive style of diplomacy adopted by China since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year. This new “wolf warrior diplomacy” has seen Chinese diplomats more aggressively defend China’s interests on social media with a mixture of confrontational approaches and conspiracy theories. Sometime with the help of their citizens.
The more aggressive approach is also being amplified by suspicious social media accounts. Twitter, the New York Times, and others have reported an increasing use of suspicions accounts to intensify China’s message and spread disinformation. In the case of Chinese medical aid to Italy during the initial COVID-19 outbreak, for example, many of the tweets praising China appear to be from inauthentic accounts.
In the case of South Korea, culture is one of the main areas of controversy with China. Chinese state media sparked a controversy over kimchi, South Korean fermented cabbage, when it claimed that a ruling by the International Standards Organization (ISO) on poa cai, Chinese pickled cabbage, covered kimchi as well. Despite the ISO ruling stating that its acceptance of standards for poa cai do not apply to kimchi the Global Times said that the ruling created an “an international standard for the kimchi industry led by China.”
On social media South Koreans accused China of trying to steal Korean culture, while Chinese internet users suggested that since China makes much of the kimchi Koreans eat, it had the right to claim kimchi and that “even the pronunciation of kimchi originated from Chinese, what else is there to say.”
South Korean traditional clothing, such as the hanbok, seems to be a particular point of controversy between the two populations, as well. Paper Games, a Chinese mobile games company, released a new dress up game in South Korea that included the hanbok. Chinese users claimed that the hanbok is actually a copy of traditional Chinese clothing. The controversy ultimately lead to the censorship of South Korean views on the gaming platform and helped to spur on social media a controversy over the hanbok and China’s depiction of the hanbok in dramas as the clothing of the lower class in society.
Blackpink, which rival BTS in global popularity, also faced controversy for holding a panda cub without gloves. Millions of Chinese users of Weibo criticized the group, prompting a South Korean users of Twitter to suggest that the pandas should be returned to China.
History and politics can also be a source of controversy. One of the more recent controversies relates to the South Korean drama “Running Man”. On a recent episode, some of the characters were playing Blue Marble, a real estate-based board game. Chinese netizens noticed that the board had flags for both China and Taiwan and began to complain on social media that China had been insulted.
One post on Weibo on the controversy remarked “I feel speechless, I will no longer watch the show… You have touched a bottom line that we cannot back down [from]. I am Chinese first, before being a fan of the show.”
The episode has since been removed from Bilibili, a streaming platform in China.
BTS and Blackpink aren’t the only musical acts to find itself in Chinese crosshairs. Singer Lee Ho-ryi decided to leave social media after being criticized by Chinese social media users for suggesting on a reality TV show that her stage name be Mao. The suggestion received 100,000 negative comments in two days on her Instagram account after the show aired, while South Koreans sought to defend the singer.
China’s strong media control and supportive comments from the semi-official Global Times and other media suggest that there is at least tacit approval by the Chinese government for its citizens engaging in social media conflicts with South Korea. In the cases of kimchi and BTS, it is the state that seems to be trying to drive the controversy.
While it might be easy to dismiss these disputes as social media spats or more focused on a domestic audience in China, they are ultimately self-defeating. Since China began informally sanctioning South Korea over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in 2016, 60 percent or more of South Koreans have had an unfavorable view of China in an annual Pew Research Center survey. Those numbers have grown in 2020. Encouraging conflict with South Korea might build support domestically for the Communist Party, but it also weakens public support in the democratic South Korea for improving relations with China.
Despite being self-defeating, China’s embrace of a more assertive public diplomacy stance suggests that the use of social media controversies to drive narratives might also be reflective of the future of relations between South Korea and China.