'China is stealing medals': South Korean presidential hopefuls on Olympics storm

Fan Kexin of China and Martina Valcepina of Italy in action as Florence Brunelle of Canada and Petra Jaszapati of Hungary crash.
PHOTO: Reuters

South Korean presidential candidates have accused China of cultural imperialism and "stealing" medals at the Beijing Winter Olympics in a move that appears calculated to appeal to the youth vote ahead of the March 9 election.

Chief among their complaints is the appearance of a performer wearing a traditional Korean dress at the Olympic opening ceremony and the disqualification on Tuesday (Feb 8) of two South Korean skaters that helped their Chinese rivals advance to the finals.

Both issues have sparked uproar among South Korean celebrities and young social media users, making a tempting target for politicians seeking a boost at the ballot box.

While China is South Korea's largest trading partner, Beijing's increasingly assertive diplomacy, its tightening grip in Hong Kong and the Covid-19 pandemic have alienated many Koreans, especially young ones, as have persistent allegations of cultural appropriation.

With recent polls suggesting the two favourites in the presidential race - Lee Jae-myung of the liberal Democratic Party, and Yoon Seok-youl of the conservative People Power Party - are neck and neck, political observers say both sides will be eager to capitalise on anti-China sentiment.

This is especially so given recent polls that have suggested voters in their 20s and 30s - who have traditionally supported the Democrats - are tilting towards the conservatives.

Winter Olympics fans the flame

The uproar over the appearance of a performer at the Olympic opening ceremony wearing the flowing Korean female dress known as hanbok is just the latest in a series of controversies in which South Koreans have accused their larger neighbour of cultural appropriation. Previous arguments have taken place over which country invented kimchi.

South Korean anger has even been reflected at an official level, with the foreign ministry saying on Sunday that it had conveyed "our stance to the Chinese side that it is necessary to respect cultural uniqueness and diversity to promote mutual understanding".

US acting ambassador to Seoul, Chris Del Corso, later joined the fray, tweeting: "What comes to mind when you think of Korea? Kimchi, K-pop, K-dramas, and of course hanbok".

On Tuesday, the Chinese embassy denied that China was misappropriating South Korean culture. It said hanbok belonged not only to the Korean peninsula but also to ethnic Koreans living in China and that it was right to represent them at the opening ceremony.

BTS leader RM has been hounded by Chinese netizens after an Instagram post showing support for South Korea short track speed skater Hwang Dae-heon. PHOTO: South China Morning Post, Instagram/@rkive

But by then, much of South Korea had already turned to the next alleged transgression, with presidential candidates Lee and Yoon joining celebrities including volleyball hero Kim Yeon-koung and BTS star RM in expressing anger and dismay at the disqualification of two South Korean short track skaters, Hwang Dae-heon and Lee June-seo, from the men's 1,000 metres semi-finals on Monday.

Critics derided the decision as questionable, particularly because Hwang - who had set a new Olympic record on Saturday - crossed the line first.

The fact that the two decisions allowed Chinese skaters to advance to the final, where they won gold and silver, fuelled the sense of injustice among South Koreans.

"I cannot hide my disappointment and anger at the biased refereeing in short track at the Beijing Winter Olympics," Lee wrote in a Facebook post late Monday.

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Meanwhile, Yoon - who has a history of taking anti-China positions - said he "deeply sympathised with the anger and frustration" of Korean athletes.

Yoon has previously called for more deployments on Korean soil of the American missile system known as THAAD - an issue that has long angered China, which sees THAAD as a threat to its security.

He has also previously accused Chinese immigrant workers of abusing the country's health insurance system by inviting their relatives to South Korea on short visits to get medical treatment at a fraction of the cost.

"Foreigners are putting only their spoons on the well-prepared rice table to share it," he wrote on his Facebook page last month.

In December, he gave a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in which he claimed most Koreans - especially the young ones - "hated China". During the same speech he said the government had been implementing "pro-China policies".

Other presidential candidates were even more outspoken. Ahn Cheol-soo, the candidate of the minor conservative opposition People's Party, accused China of "stealing" South Korea's medals and urged China to cancel "the dirty call" and apologise.

Shin Yul, a political-science professor at Myongji University, said any fallout from the controversy was more likely to hurt Lee's election chances - rather than any of the other candidates - as his party was in government and it had a reputation for being pro-China, whether or not that "reflects the reality".

Chinese fishing boats in firing line

Some observers believe Lee's recognition of this is behind his recent efforts to appear tough on China, as previously he has been linked to policies seen as pro-Beiing.

(Among them, policies opposing both further THAAD deployments and a mooted three-way military alliance with Japan and the United States).

In a recent interview with the Segye Ilbo newspaper, Lee took a hardline stance on Chinese fishing boats found poaching in South Korean waters.

"We will sternly deal with illegal fishing boats whether they are North Korean or Chinese. Boats trespassing on our waters must be sunk," Lee said.

Yoon Sung-suk, a political-science professor of Chonnam National University, said it was "lamentable" that politicians were latching on to public anger at a time when they should be calming the situation in the national interest.

"Even if they may risk losing some votes, presidential candidates and other politicians should not pander to voters with headline-grabbing comments. They are causing people's resentments over hanbok or unfair judging at the Olympics to spill into diplomacy."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.