Chinese Citizens Question the Appeal of South Korea

A series of worrying homicide threats in Korea ignited a wider conversation on Chinese social media platforms

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7:55 PM HKT, Mon August 14, 2023 1 mins read

On August 6, the Chinese embassy in South Korea issued a safety advisory urging Chinese citizens in the country to exercise caution due to a recent series of ‘random homicides.’

On the evening of August 3, a man in a city near Seoul used his car and a knife to attack bystanders, leaving thirteen wounded and one dead. The incident rocked South Korea, where these crimes are uncommon. When a series of copycat threats were posted online, law enforcement subsequently apprehended a group of 46 posters in a two-day operation.

In the aftermath, a multitude of trending hashtags related to travel in South Korea emerged on Chinese social media.

“I strongly advise against traveling to Korea. International students and migrant workers there should avoid crowded areas and leisure activities,” one Weibo user posted. “Stay vigilant, refrain from looking down at your phone, and be attentive to your surroundings when you’re alone outside. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

The discourse quickly spread beyond the recent news of violence, igniting a wider discussion about Korean culture among Chinese netizens, which touched on everything from kimchi to K-pop.

“The South Korean embassy just issued a safety reminder in South Korea. What’s the significance of your trending hashtag?” another user asked. “In Yanji, Jilin, Dandong, Liaoning, and Shenyang, you can find more authentic kimchi! Do we really need to travel abroad just for a bite of kimchi?”

The controversy about kimchi can be traced back to 2021, when major vlogger Li Ziqi found herself embroiled in a social media dispute between Korean and Chinese netizens. The conflict arose from a video in which Li labeled kimchi as a ‘yanbian’ (Korean-ethnic Chinese) traditional food rather than a Korean one, setting off a contentious debate.

The deepening divide between China and South Korea isn’t new — according to a recent Pew survey, younger South Korean adults hold a more pronounced disapproval of China compared to older generations; an anomaly among the 19 countries surveyed.

In contrast, cultural enthusiasts and K-pop fans have been forging a different path. Despite the strained relations, they’ve maintained hope for K-pop’s return to the Chinese market. This optimism follows a subtle easing of unspoken constraints, signaled by an agreement between China Media Group and Korean Broadcasting System in 2021.

In March, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism declared its acceptance of applications from foreign performers for visits and tours in the country. However, it was unclear whether South Korean acts would be included in this new opening.

When Jay Park made his first post-pandemic appearance in China, it caused widespread discussions about the potential relaxation of the ‘K-pop ban’ by the Chinese government.

Although a ban on K-pop idols was (unofficially) initiated in 2017 due to Seoul’s deployment of the US-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD), which Beijing viewed as a security threat, Chinese K-pop fan clubs have persisted in showing their support via organized group purchases of their favorite idols’ albums.

Cover image via Cait Ellis

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