All last week, Korea was rocked by the news that a social media influencer named Song Ji-ah was suspending professional activities after wearing counterfeit luxury fashion.
It didn't take long for another, more damning line of attack to be leveled against her: that she is secretly pro-Chinese (chinjung 친중). And to be seen as supporting or praising China has become dangerous in contemporary Korea, on par with being pro-Japanese (chinil 친일).
Song's case doesn't justify the accusation. But it illustrates how Sinophobia—hatred for China—is at an all-time high in a country that's been mostly known until now for the difficult relations with Japan, its former colonial master.
2008, the year of the Beijing Summer Olympics, betrayed this future to come. In April, as the games approached, a torch relay was held in Seoul with the idea of sending the Olympic flame—burning in a park in eastern Seoul since the games were held there in 1988—to China.
Some were in attendance to protest China's treatment of Tibet and North Korean refugees. Chinese students who had come to support the event—numbering in the thousands—started a physical fight with the much smaller anti-Chinese group and injured several including a police officer. It caused an uproar in Korea.
And in May a magnitude-8.0 earthquake rocked the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan, killing nearly 90,000 people. It unleashed a torrent of hateful Korean comments disparaging China and the victims of the disaster, to the point that some Koreans started a petition to call for a stop and offer condolences on behalf of the nation.
That same year a well-known Chinese TV actress died after falling from a building in the Chinese city of Guangzhou. She had been drinking alcohol with four Koreans, and rumors—later proven untrue—that she had been raped and murdered reportedly fed Chinese anger against Koreans, which in turn caused ire in Korea at what was seen as bias.
But hints of Korea's less-than-positive feelings toward its bigger neighbor predated these incidents.
Some Chinese scholars contend that Korea's contempt for China is old: from the 18th century onward, the Korean court derided the Chinese Qing Dynasty, founded by the Manchus, as "barbaric", and saw itself as a superior civilization that—ironic as it may sound—preserved the essence of classical Chinese culture. That perception, they argue, colors how Korea interacts with China even to this day.
The Chinese side also problematizes the myth of the Korean national progenitor Dangun 단군, who some Korean ultra-nationalists still assert ruled much of ancient China, without historical evidence. Such a view naturally brings Korea into conflict with China, which has its own inflexible, self-aggrandizing understanding of the past.
Even if you don't buy the historical argument, the longstanding hostile treatment of ethnic Koreans from northeast China, many of whom work in South Korea, is proof of a certain superiority complex over China, which was slow to embrace capitalism and develop economically in the 20th century.
"The Korean television depicts our ethnic Korean compatriots [from China] as backward, poor and ridiculous, and some Koreans secretly discriminate against and look down on them," acknowledged a writer in 2006.
One could substitute simply "China" and "Chinese" for "our ethnic Korean compatriots" given the similar disparagement they faced. The military dictatorship of General Park Chung-hee, who ruled from 1961 to 1979, instituted systematic discrimination against Chinese residents of Korea, restricting their ability to own assets. The community, estimated at 600,000 in 1945, shrank to 57,000 by 1975.
Discussing the violence during the Olympic torch rally with a Korean news magazine, one Chinese student in Korea said, "Chinese students who had been repressed while living in Korea might have seen the torch rally as a chance to let out pent-up emotions. On many occasions Koreans have insulted and looked down on Chinese students who work in delivery or as restaurant servers."
Speaking to Koreans today, one is likely to hear that their animosity at China has legitimate grounds.
One oft-cited reason is the so-called Northeast Project, a five-year research initiative carried out by the Chinese Academic of Social Sciences between 2002 and 2007.
Korea saw this as an attempt by China to claim the history of certain ancient kingdoms in the border region between present-day China and North Korea (and possibly exercise control over North Korea's territory should the regime in Pyongyang implode).
Another source of anger is the Chinese measures following the deployment of the US-made weapons system a.k.a. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) on Korean soil in 2017. Ostensibly for protecting South Korea from attacks by the North, it was vigorously opposed by Beijing, which saw it as aimed by the US at China.
In the aftermath of THAAD's arrival, Chinese authorities closed down dozens of the Korean retail firm Lotte's supermarket locations citing regulatory violations (Lotte had provided the land used for installing the system in Korea). Although the government officially denied retaliating against Korea, distribution of Korean cultural contents in China as well as package tours to Korea by Chinese tourists declined, suggesting a top-down directive to exact an economic toll on Seoul.
Korean academics in turn have pointed out that China's own "patriotism, nationalism and Sino-centrism [...] especially among young people born after 1980" in addition to "fake news about Korea", "a combination of an inferiority complex vis-à-vis Korea and disdain toward Korean culture" and "a low level of civic-mindedness" are to blame for the bad relations between the two countries.
Funnily, both sides make very good arguments about the other: the Chinese government policies can be punitive and motivated by pure self-interest; Korea has a history of treating those from China poorly and eyeing its biggest trading partner with suspicion.
They both suffer from extreme nationalism and continue to wrangle over whether to define a host of cultural products and practices as either Chinese or Korean, worsening what is already a bad situation.
In the late 2000s it was about whether the Dano/Duanwu festival, which originated in China but is celebrated in both countries, was Chinese or Korean. The UNESCO inscribed a Korean version in 2008 on its list of "intangible cultural heritage of humanity" much to Chinese disapproval. As if to mollify them, the organization inscribed the following year a Chinese version as a "Dragon Boat Festival", plus what it called a "farmers' dance of China's Korean ethnic group", both under the China category.
More recently the two sides have been fighting over whether it's acceptable to describe the Korean costume hanbok 한복 as the "costume of ethnic Koreans in China (Chaoxianzu 朝鮮族). That's what the Chinese search portal Baidu has done on its encyclopedia page, prompting a well-known Korean volunteer organization with a mission of "publicizing Korea to foreigners" to complain that China is "invading and distorting Korean traditions and culture including hanbok." Remarkably, the Korean state-funded news agency Yonhap saw it fit to pick on the story, as if this ought to be treated as top news.
A similar dispute has unfolded over the nature of kimchi, Korea's beloved fermented cabbage. That China uses the umbrella term paocai 泡菜—meaning vegetable steeped in liquid—to refer to kimchi has long irked Korea, which sees kimchi as a unique category of food distinct from Chinese paocai. It didn't help matters that in late 2020 the Chinese state media Global Times ran a boastful article about how an international regulator issued a standard definition for paocai, and falsely implied this gave China global authority over kimchi, even though the regulator—the International Organization for Standardization (IOS)—states explicitly that "this document does not apply to kimchi."
Koreans were rightly angered, but some of the reaction, apparently motivated by "arguments made by some Chinese netizens that kimchi has its origin in China's paocai", has been overblown.
Watching what many Koreans present as an egregious example of this Chinese cooptation—a video of popular Chinese YouTube Li Ziqi making kimchi—I see that she does call kimchi "spicy Chinese cabbage", but she goes on to explain that it's "a traditional dish for Yanbian Chinese of Korean Nationality". That statement isn't, empirically speaking, false, just as it isn't wrong to say that hanbok is the costume of ethnic Koreans in China as much as Korea's traditional costume.
The negative opinion of China isn't just a Korean thing; last year's Pew Research Center survey indicated that a large majority of people in most developed countries had unfavorable views of the country. But Korea stood out as perhaps the only country where people under 50 expressed an even stronger dislike of China than those over 50 did, and a separate Korean survey from May last year showed that even Japan is seen more favorably than China across the political spectrum.
This climate means even Korean businesses shy away from publicizing their projects in China for fear of offending domestic consumers. The Beijing correspondent of a Korean finance newspaper recently cautioned: "The greatest risk for [Korean] firms doing business in China is Koreans' anti-Chinese sentiment." And he is right.
Korean food companies ran into trouble with Korean media in spring because they were labeling their kimchi products for the Chinese market as paocai. A plan for a Chinese-themed tourism complex in Gangwon Province on the east coast collapsed after a petition against it garnered 400,000 signatures. A K-pop singer named Henry came under fire in October for playing a song called "I Love China" and wearing a mask with the same phrase on flying into China for concerts.
And Song Ji-ah, the influencer whose career now hangs by a thread, is being told she "sold out the nation" (maeguk 매국) and is an "opportunist" because she has accounts on Chinese Platforms Bilibili and Weibo (all contents were pulled down in the last few days). Her past remark that she likes China, learning and speaking Chinese, and showing herself eating kimchi, noted as paocai 泡菜 in the Chinese subtitle, have made the round as indication that she betrayed Korea.
Criticizing a country—China included—for injustices it perpetrates is wholly legitimate, but Korea has gone beyond that point a long ago. One alarmed Korean wrote in response to the witch hunt against Song: "The collective madness of Korean netizens for branding someone a traitor to the nation and burying them is no less than that of Chinese netizens."
Finally, something the two countries can bond over.