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What 'BTS controversy' says about China's political situation

K-pop behemoth BTS has faced a backlash in China over a remark on the Korean War. Courtesy of Big Hit Entertainment
K-pop behemoth BTS has faced a backlash in China over a remark on the Korean War. Courtesy of Big Hit Entertainment

By Dong Sun-hwa

The controversy over K-pop juggernaut BTS's comment on the Korean War (1950-53) is not subsiding in China ― and this offers some crucial hints about that country's political climate, according to experts.

The band's front man RM made the "controversial remark," Oct. 7, after receiving an award from the U.S.-based nonprofit organization The Korea Society for contributing to Seoul-Washington ties. During his acceptance speech, RM referred to the Korean War, in which the U.S. aided South Korea to fight against a North Korea invasion.

"We will always remember the history of pain that our two nations shared together and the sacrifice of countless men and women," he said in English during a virtual ceremony.

But some Chinese insist the septet "humiliated" their country ― which was the North's ally during the war ― by not mentioning the country's name in recognition of Chinese soldiers' sacrifice. Numerous Koreans objected to this, saying: "BTS is a South Korean band ― does it have to mention China that aided the North?"

Lim Dae-geun, a professor of Chinese Cinema Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS), said an unresolved historical issue has created the cultural conflict.

"When two countries establish diplomatic relations after having a war, an invader usually makes an apology first," he said. "But in the case of South Korea and China, there was no apology or any other settlement because North Korea was in between them. Hence, South Koreans and the Chinese have different perspectives toward the war ― for the latter, the Korean War was a war against U.S. aggression and they helped North Korea."

Patriotism used as political tool
K-pop diva Lee Hyo-ri was criticized by many Chinese online users for her
K-pop diva Lee Hyo-ri was criticized by many Chinese online users for her "Mao" remark. Image captured from Lee's Instagram

This is not the first time a Korean celebrity has been attacked by Chinese netizens over their remarks. In August, Korean singer Lee Hyo-ri came under attack after suggesting "Mao" as her stage name on MBC's reality show "Hangout with Yoo." This offended several Chinese online users who claimed Lee "belittled" their communist revolutionary leader Mao Zedong (1893-1976).

"China is having a trade row with the U.S. and the country has not yet resolved its COVID-19 problems," Lim said. "To fend off accusations from its people and escape responsibility, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is using patriotism as a tool to deflect people's attention. The CCP is appealing to their emotions, so these days, the Chinese are very sensitive about incidents linked to patriotism."

Following the dispute, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Monday during a regular press briefing: "I want to say that we all should learn lessons from history and look forward to the future, and hold dear, peace and strong friendship."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday:
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday: "I want to say that we all should learn lessons from history and look forward to the future, and hold dear, peace and strong friendship." AP-Yonhap

Lim Jin-hee, a research professor at Wonkwang University's Korean Chinese Relations Institute, said China seems to want to cover up the issue for diplomatic reasons.

"China is facing diplomatic challenges these days," she said. "It has been at odds with a number of countries due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other economic issues. Hence, the country has been seeking amicable relations with Korea, which has mostly been neutral ― it does not want to lose one more friend because of an incident like this."

However, the Chinese state-run media outlet Huanqiu Shibao, or The Global Times ― which withdrew its Oct. 12 online article about Chinese internet users who were angry at BTS ― posted a new piece Oct. 14 highlighting Koreans' negative reaction to its people. It said, "Some Korean media are criticizing Chinese netizens for overreacting and being extremely patriotic."

But the professor said the article was far from being extremely critical and that Korea doesn't have to pay much attention to it because the CCP has not shifted its position.

"What we have to focus on is the stance and reactions of the Chinese government," she said.

The incident has brought up another question: Should hallyu stars like BTS ― which boasts a solid international fandom ― be more sensitive to the feelings of all fans around the world? Or was RM right to make his comment? More than 250 people shared their thoughts on The Korea Times' Facebook and Twitter.

"It is understandable that some Chinese took offense with RM's comment because China suffered troop casualties too," ER Won said on Facebook. "But these Chinese have to understand, RM was talking as a South Korean, thanking the USA; without the USA's support, there is a possibility South Korea and BTS may not exist today. RM did not criticize China for supporting North Korea. RM's comment was not malicious or offensive. RM was just commenting as a South Korean acknowledging the support given by the USA during the Korean War."

Twitter user Tina Sosourada wrote, "The freedom of speech is important for a democratic society. Pop stars are also members of society and have every right to express themselves. He expressed his thoughts in a very thoughtful way, so I think that some people are misusing his statement for other purposes."

There were also contrasting views.

"The entertainment industry should be dedicated to entertaining and not to exercising politics," Facebook user Lola Navarro Cuevas said.


K-pop behemoth BTS has faced a backlash in China over a remark on the Korean War. Courtesy of Big Hit Entertainment
K-pop behemoth BTS has faced a backlash in China over a remark on the Korean War. Courtesy of Big Hit Entertainment

By Dong Sun-hwa

The controversy over K-pop juggernaut BTS's comment on the Korean War (1950-53) is not subsiding in China ― and this offers some crucial hints about that country's political climate, according to experts.

The band's front man RM made the "controversial remark," Oct. 7, after receiving an award from the U.S.-based nonprofit organization The Korea Society for contributing to Seoul-Washington ties. During his acceptance speech, RM referred to the Korean War, in which the U.S. aided South Korea to fight against a North Korea invasion.

"We will always remember the history of pain that our two nations shared together and the sacrifice of countless men and women," he said in English during a virtual ceremony.

But some Chinese insist the septet "humiliated" their country ― which was the North's ally during the war ― by not mentioning the country's name in recognition of Chinese soldiers' sacrifice. Numerous Koreans objected to this, saying: "BTS is a South Korean band ― does it have to mention China that aided the North?"

Lim Dae-geun, a professor of Chinese Cinema Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS), said an unresolved historical issue has created the cultural conflict.

"When two countries establish diplomatic relations after having a war, an invader usually makes an apology first," he said. "But in the case of South Korea and China, there was no apology or any other settlement because North Korea was in between them. Hence, South Koreans and the Chinese have different perspectives toward the war ― for the latter, the Korean War was a war against U.S. aggression and they helped North Korea."

Patriotism used as political tool
K-pop diva Lee Hyo-ri was criticized by many Chinese online users for her
K-pop diva Lee Hyo-ri was criticized by many Chinese online users for her "Mao" remark. Image captured from Lee's Instagram

This is not the first time a Korean celebrity has been attacked by Chinese netizens over their remarks. In August, Korean singer Lee Hyo-ri came under attack after suggesting "Mao" as her stage name on MBC's reality show "Hangout with Yoo." This offended several Chinese online users who claimed Lee "belittled" their communist revolutionary leader Mao Zedong (1893-1976).

"China is having a trade row with the U.S. and the country has not yet resolved its COVID-19 problems," Lim said. "To fend off accusations from its people and escape responsibility, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is using patriotism as a tool to deflect people's attention. The CCP is appealing to their emotions, so these days, the Chinese are very sensitive about incidents linked to patriotism."

Following the dispute, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Monday during a regular press briefing: "I want to say that we all should learn lessons from history and look forward to the future, and hold dear, peace and strong friendship."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday:
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday: "I want to say that we all should learn lessons from history and look forward to the future, and hold dear, peace and strong friendship." AP-Yonhap

Lim Jin-hee, a research professor at Wonkwang University's Korean Chinese Relations Institute, said China seems to want to cover up the issue for diplomatic reasons.

"China is facing diplomatic challenges these days," she said. "It has been at odds with a number of countries due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other economic issues. Hence, the country has been seeking amicable relations with Korea, which has mostly been neutral ― it does not want to lose one more friend because of an incident like this."

However, the Chinese state-run media outlet Huanqiu Shibao, or The Global Times ― which withdrew its Oct. 12 online article about Chinese internet users who were angry at BTS ― posted a new piece Oct. 14 highlighting Koreans' negative reaction to its people. It said, "Some Korean media are criticizing Chinese netizens for overreacting and being extremely patriotic."

But the professor said the article was far from being extremely critical and that Korea doesn't have to pay much attention to it because the CCP has not shifted its position.

"What we have to focus on is the stance and reactions of the Chinese government," she said.

The incident has brought up another question: Should hallyu stars like BTS ― which boasts a solid international fandom ― be more sensitive to the feelings of all fans around the world? Or was RM right to make his comment? More than 250 people shared their thoughts on The Korea Times' Facebook and Twitter.

"It is understandable that some Chinese took offense with RM's comment because China suffered troop casualties too," ER Won said on Facebook. "But these Chinese have to understand, RM was talking as a South Korean, thanking the USA; without the USA's support, there is a possibility South Korea and BTS may not exist today. RM did not criticize China for supporting North Korea. RM's comment was not malicious or offensive. RM was just commenting as a South Korean acknowledging the support given by the USA during the Korean War."

Twitter user Tina Sosourada wrote, "The freedom of speech is important for a democratic society. Pop stars are also members of society and have every right to express themselves. He expressed his thoughts in a very thoughtful way, so I think that some people are misusing his statement for other purposes."

There were also contrasting views.

"The entertainment industry should be dedicated to entertaining and not to exercising politics," Facebook user Lola Navarro Cuevas said.


Dong Sun-hwa sunhwadong@koreatimes.co.kr


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