China and South Korea have become embroiled in a cultural appropriation row after a woman appeared at the opening ceremony of the Beijing winter Olympics wearing traditional Korean dress.
The Chinese embassy in Seoul defended the decision to include a participant wearing hanbok, describing her as a representative of the country’s dozens of ethnic groups.
Her appearance sparked anger among many South Koreans, who denounced it as another attempt by China to claim parts of Korean culture – including its national dish, kimchi – as its own.
The embassy described the woman as a member of the joseonjok – an ethnic minority with roots in Korea – who took part in the Games’ opening ceremony among more than 50 other representatives of ethnic groups in China.
“It is their desire and right for representatives of each ethnic group in China to attend an international sports competition and the major national event of the Beijing Winter Olympics, wearing their traditional costumes,” an embassy spokesperson said in a statement, according to the Yonhap news agency.
The spokesperson said China “respected” Korean historical and cultural traditions, and called on South Koreans to “respect the emotions” of China’s ethnic minorities.
China is home to about 2 million ethnic Koreans, half of whom live on the Chinese side of the North Korean border. They are a recognised minority group whose language and culture are granted official protection.
The embassy’s explanation is unlikely to quell anger in South Korea, where politicians said that the incident could fuel anti-Chinese sentiment.
Lee Jae-myung, who is running in March’s presidential election for the ruling Democratic party, wrote on Facebook: “Do not covet (our) culture. Oppose cultural appropriation.”
Lee So-young, a Democratic party MP, said: “This is not the first time China has introduced Korean culture as if it were its own. If the anti-China sentiment of the Korean people becomes stronger by leaving this issue as is, it will be a big obstacle when conducting diplomacy with China in the future.”
Relations between the two countries soured in 2017 after South Korea approved the deployment of a US missile defence system to deter threats from North Korea.
China, however, said the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) deployment would upset the regional security balance as it could be used to penetrate its own territory.
China banned groups traveling to South Korea – a popular destination for Chinese tourists – and shuttered dozens of stores operated by the South Korean supermarket chain Lotte Mart over supposed fire safety violations. Lotte Mart exited the Chinese market the following year.
Christopher Del Corso, the chargé d’affaires ad interim at the US embassy in Seoul, appeared to side with his host country in the hanbok row.
“What comes to mind when you think of Korea? Kimchi, K-pop, K-dramas … and of course Hanbok,” he tweeted on Tuesday, accompanied by the hashtag #OriginalHanbokFromKorea and a photograph of himself wearing the garment.
In 2020, the countries’ netizens clashed over the provenance of kimchi, a dish regarded as an essential part of the Korean diet. The exchanges came after a Chinese pickled vegetable dish called pao cai received certification from the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO). That status, the Chinese state-run Global Times newspaper reported, was an “international standard for the kimchi industry led by China”.
The Beijing Games have so far been a frustrating experience for South Koreans, who reacted with fury after two of their short track speed skaters, Hwang Dae-heon and Lee June-seo, were disqualified during their semi-finals in the men’s 1,000m on Monday for rule violations.
Their disqualifications meant two Chinese athletes progressed to the final, with the host country winning gold and silver.
Park Joo-min, a ruling party MP, said the Olympic organisers should be “ashamed of themselves” for turning the Games into a “local Chinese event”, while his colleague Kim Yong-min said the “biased rulings damaged the spirit of the Olympics as well as our athletes”, according to the Korea Times.
The Korean Sport and Olympic Committee said it would file an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport “to formalise the injustice of this decision”.
“We plan to do our best to prevent injustice from happening to our athletes in the international ice skating and sporting communities,” it said in a statement.