South Korea may have clinched its first gold medal at Beijing 2022 last week, but the success came amid tensions with China over alleged cultural appropriation and “biased judgments” during the Winter Olympics.
In recent years, relations between the two countries have been tense both politically and culturally and this year’s Games have caused further flashpoints.
During the opening ceremony, a woman on stage appeared to be wearing a traditional Korean hanbok dress, which South Koreans have long been irked about, deeming China to be passing off South Korean culture as its own.
On the following day, South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party released a statement criticizing China and demanding it stops “stealing” its “culture.”
South Korean people also expressed their outrage online.
“I’m mad that they’ve introduced a person wearing hanbok on an international Olympic stage as a Chinese person! I’m mad that they are introducing Korean culture as Chinese to the world,” one wrote on Twitter.
The Chinese Embassy in Seoul said on Wednesday that China is composed of 56 ethnic groups, and it is “not only their wish but also their right” to wear ethnic clothes during the Games.
“The Korean ethnic group in China and the North and South of the Korean Peninsula are of the same origin and share a common traditional culture, including clothing,” the embassy said.
“The so-called ‘cultural project’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ are completely untenable.”
It’s not the first time there has been a cultural war between the two countries. Last year, there was a row over South Korea’s traditional food of kimchi.
South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism issued guidelines which stipulated that Xinqi is to be the new, official Chinese name for kimchi.
The guidelines, implemented with the aim of differentiating Korean kimchi from Chinese fermented vegetables – pao cai — kicked off a wave of heated debates among media and citizens of both countries.
Further adding to the recent tension, South Koreans have been angry by what some deem to be unfair officiating during this month’s games.
On February 7, two South Korean speed skaters – Hwang Dae-heon and Lee June-seo – received penalties after finishing first and second in their respective semifinal groups of the 1,000m short track event.
Hwang was disqualified for making an illegal late pass that caused contact, and Lee for changing lanes which also caused contact.
The penalties allowed two skaters to qualify for the final, which coincidentally were from China.
Chinese skaters Ren Ziwei and Li Wenlong eventually won the gold and silver medal in the final, while Hungary’s Shaoang Liu took the bronze.
Shaolin Liu, the brother of the bronze medalist and a speed skater himself, had finished first but was ruled out for receiving two yellow cards after a review.
Both South Korea and Hungary inquired about the referee’s judgments, but the International Skating Union (ISU) said it “stands by his [the Video Referee] final decisions.”
Korean Sport and Olympic Committee (KSOC) said the Korean delegation will file a petition to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
The chairman of the committee Lee Kee-heung also had a virtual talk with the ISU president Jan Dijkema on Wednesday to “strongly protest” against the “biased judgments” seen at the short track event, KSOC said in a statement.
Head of the South Korean athletic delegation Yoon Hong-geun said on Tuesday that the South Korean people have asked the athletes to come back home after the alleged unfair ruling.
But he said athletes will do their best to bring “more tears and more joy” during the remaining events.
Subsequently South Korea’s Hwang did deliver some joy as he navigated his way through a large, chaotic field to win the men’s 1,500m and secure South Korea’s first short track medal at Beijing 2022.
“I was frustrated when I was knocked out of the 1,000m but I thought I got the penalty because I didn’t race clean enough,” Hwang told the official Beijing 2022 media site on Thursday.
“I don’t think there was any influence due to the rivalry (between the Koreans and Chinese) in the judge’s decision. Today, we raced clean, it was part of our strategy.”
Nonetheless people from South Korea have been voicing their opinions online about Monday’s 1,000m short track semifinals.
The hashtags “if it’s going to be like this” and “do the Olympics just among yourselves” started trending on Twitter in South Korea.
“Why are we doing this Olympics, it’s not bringing the world together at all,” a South Korean tweeted.
Hwang’s Instagram comment sections quickly filled with both supporting and hate messages – including flags of both countries.
South Korean politicians also commented about what had happened on Monday.
The Ruling Democratic Party’s floor leader Yun Ho-jung said he couldn’t sleep due to anger, while People’s Party presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo called for China to “immediately cancel its dirty judgment,” claiming gold medals were stolen.
“If China invites people from all over the world and undermines the Olympic spirit and pursues its own interests only, the Winter Olympics will end as China’s poor local feast for the poor family of China, not a festival for the people of the world,” he wrote on Facebook.
The Chinese Embassy in Seoul released a statement on Wednesday expressing “serious concern” over South Korean media and politicians stirring up “anti-China sentiment.”
“The judges of each event are selected by the IOC and the International Sports Federations. No country or government has the right to interfere,” reads the statement.
In response to the Chinese statement, South Korean Foreign Ministry said that foreign diplomatic missions should be “prudent” while respecting the host nation’s situations and sentiment when publicly commenting on the host nation’s news media and politician comments.
While Hwang won gold in the 1,500m on Wednesday, China’s Ren Ziwei got disqualified in the semifinal.
The Chinese Embassy also released a separate statement, congratulating Hwang on winning his country’s first gold in Beijing on its social media, saying that they “hope that athletes from China and South Korea will make great achievements in the Beijing Winter Olympics.”
As well as cultural clashes, tensions between China and South Korea have also been present in the political sphere.
In 2017, the diplomatic relationship between China and South Korea was tested by the North Korea crisis after the deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) defence system, which became fully operational in September.
Beijing was strongly opposed to that deployment, set in motion by Moon Jae-in’s predecessor, impeached President Park Geun-hye.
China appeared to show its displeasure, with a 50% drop in Chinese tourists travelling to South Korea.
A South Korean car-maker and a supermarket chain also experienced a drop in their sales in China in the months after the THAAD announcement.
Professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy Kim Han-kwon told Yonhap News Agency that China’s strengthened “patriotic and nationalist ideology education” has increased pride in their culture and system, which is bound to grow conflicts with countries that have a wide range of cultural sharing like South Korea.
He added that China is likely to continue such education, which could lead to unintended cultural conflicts with South Korea “over a considerable period of time.”
Kim said that since last year there has been a trend from China to strengthen friendly cooperation with neighboring countries, which he said Korea should make good use of to clarify its values to China while avoiding cultural conflicts unintended by the two governments.
This year marks 30th anniversary of the establishment of South Korea and China’s diplomatic relations.
CNN’s Beijing bureau and Ben Church contributed reporting.