Since 1992, bilateral relations between China and South Korea have sustained a state of positive development, although there have naturally been some moments of friction and contradictions. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, a number of disputes arose between netizens in China and South Korea over such things as the origin of pickled vegetables (paocai in Chinese, kimchi in Korean) and the Van Fleet award acceptance speech of South Korea’s BTS singing group. Different interpretations of a few thousand years of bilateral interactions—cultural, political, military, historical, and other topics mutually entangling the two—have led to some sharply vitriolic disputes between netizens in the two neighboring countries. Today’s tensions over national identity issues are rooted in how history is understood in the two countries and the enduring salience of cultural symbols of identity tied to history.
Nobody could have anticipated that pickled vegetables would, ultimately, become a focus of the 2020 dispute between netizens of China and South Korea. Since over a decade ago when the Gangneung Danoje (端午祭) was granted UNESCO recognition and other developments occurred, all the way up to today’s pickles, it seems that almost all ongoing Sino-South Korean identity disputes are connected to the entangled histories of the two sides. Seen from the history of cultural exchanges from long ago, is traditional medicine, after all, your Chinese medicine or my Korean medicine? Is traditional dress our Han Chinese clothing or your Korean clothing? Is the May 5 festival our Duanwujie (端午節，Dragon Boat Festival) or your Danoje? Are vegetables marinated by pickling, our “paocai” or your “kimchi”? A thousand-year cultural legacy should be a factor to strengthen shared identity and tighten cultural connections in Sino-South Korea relations. However, against the current geopolitical and geo-economical background, shared cultural connections unexpectedly became the focus of contention between the two neighbors.
Geopolitically, China and South Korea have been involved in different political camps since World War II. During the decades of Cold War, these two countries unfortunately fell into hot war although they were not each other’s main enemy. Each country describes the war and justifies its actions through its own lens. Was the war, after all, our “War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea” or your “Korean War”? Different memories of the war led to widespread, fervent protest from Chinese fans against South Korea’s popular singing group BTS’s acceptance speech in receiving the Van Fleet Award by the Korea Society. Sensitivity toward remarks about the war some 70 years ago has unexpectedly heightened recently.
Geo-economically, China and South Korea have been interdependent over the past three decades. China has been the biggest trade partner of South Korea for many years. The Chinese market is bigger than the U.S. and Japanese ones combined for Korean products. The market matters. The Samsung Group and Hyundai Group have had to react to the voices of customers and stop showing an advertisement performed by BTS. Also, when Seoul and Washington decided to deploy THAAD in South Korea, Seoul had to face the negative economic consequences of its deteriorating bilateral relationship with China. Both geopolitical differences and historical memories are now capable of arousing economic retaliation.
This chapter analyzes from the angle of how history and the present are linked the current identity conflicts between China and South Korea. It recognizes that using today’s concepts to evaluate history leads clearly to tearing asunder Sino-South Korean mutual historical recognition. At the same time, the influence of values, geopolitics, differences in level of development, and other factors, along with cultural clashes between China and South Korea intersecting with political and security topics mutually arouse and even worsen relations between the two peoples. Security confrontations and ideological divergence have severely worsened public relations between the Chinese and South Koreans. These disputes, such as the Korean War and THAAD, have become important backdrops for the emergence and exacerbation of cultural rifts.